In a changing world, savoring our farms
June 4, 2021
Sometimes we hold a treasure within our reach without an awareness of its value and, as the refrain from the song "Big Yellow Taxi" goes, "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you don't know what you got till it's gone."
Many states across the country are recognizing what the loss of family farms means to our quality of life in rural areas. Carlton County's farms constitute a wealth of wholesome food and valuable resources in our backyards, but do we truly appreciate our farmers?
Farming is hard work, sometimes sapping physical strength and energy for days and weeks on end. At other times, stress and worry hound the farmers day and night - anxiety about weather, fair pricing for products, equipment failure or maintenance, animal health, crop loss, and an endless list of challenges that the general public never needs to consider while strolling the aisles in the local grocery store.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a Census of Agriculture every five years. The data is compiled for every county in the country and offers a wealth of information related to the number and size of farms, crops and livestock sold, and a breakdown of other details about income and the farmers themselves.
The most recent census was completed in 2017. At that time, Carlton County listed 529 farms. Of those, 98 percent were classified as family farms.
The census showed 83 percent of county farms had sales of $25,000 or less annually. For many farmers, another source of income is required to survive. There is diversity in the types of animals and crops raised and the products sold, including everything from berries to mohair. One of the largest crops is hay, which places Carlton County 32nd of the 87 counties in the state.
Tarah Young began in her position as the University of Minnesota Extension agriculture production educator in March of 2020. Due to the pandemic, her experiences have been anything but "normal" or comparable to those of her predecessors. As the pandemic altered much of how often Young's office dealt with the public in person, she remains the top resource for farmers in Carlton County. The main focus of her job has been to help farmers understand the proper utilization of byproducts such as wood ash and lime that are produced by local industries. Farmers need to apply to receive the byproducts that enrich soil and improve crop yields.
Even though she is new to Carlton County, Young is familiar with the trend of family farms fading. Challenges prior to and during the pandemic have made earning a livelihood from farming just too difficult for some.
"There is not the intergenerational transfer of farms," Young said. "Their children grow up and move to the cities." Consequently, farmers lose the help and support they need to operate.
Young said this is especially true for dairy farms, which are time- and labor intensive. In addition to changes in family dynamics, commodity prices fluctuate so rapidly that farmers cannot depend on stability in the price they receive for their products.
On the other hand, Young said the pandemic has created a demand for farmland as some younger entrepreneurs have decided to grow their own food and maybe enough extra to sell to the public. She has been assisting farmers who buy land and learn that often the soil lacks the rich nutrients needed to grow crops. Young counsels farmers on having soil tested and then assists them in following a plan to amend and restore whatever is lacking.
"If there is a bright spot in this pandemic, I think it is that people want to grow their own food," she said.
Young receives calls for assistance on a wide range of topics.
"I had a dairy farmer ask how to install solar panels on his barn and another wanted information about plants to attract pollinators," she said. "Some want information about maintaining organic farming."
If she doesn't have an answer, she will find it. During the pandemic Facebook has proven to be a valuable tool for farmers in reaching out to her.
When the pandemic struck, many of us turned our focus to buying more local food and eating a more healthful diet. We can reach that goal quite easily within our area. Many people already buy community supported agriculture (CSA) shares from local farmers that provide them with a regular supply of fresh veggies, meat and other products.
Carlton County's Food and Nutrition Network, Extension and United Way have sponsored a local food fair in recent years to provide farmers with an opportunity to inform the public about options to buy directly from farmers. The last fair was on March 7, 2020, just prior to the shutdown across the state. There were more than 30 exhibitors offering CSA shares, direct-buying information and educating the public about the array of wholesome food in the region. The pandemic put a pause on the food fair for this year, so it is more important than ever for buyers to check out the farmers market when it opens or to contact farmers to buy directly from them.
Young says the farmers have endured isolation due to the Covid-19 restrictions as have the rest of us, but she thinks it has been harder for them. In the past, farmers had their own community network, often gathering to share information or to lend a hand to a neighbor. When two workshops were held during the past year, Young said she could see the joy and hear the gratitude for the opportunity to be together again.
Consumers are learning every day about the problems with the food chains in America, whether there is contaminated meat or bacteria-infected produce. Nutritionists continue to urge everyone to eat more unprocessed food and stick to fresh fruits and vegetables. As summer nears, there is no better place to find an abundance of good healthful food than Carlton County. We know what we've got, and it won't be gone as long as we support our local farmers.
Francy Chammings is a retired English teacher and clinical psychologist who loves living in Carlton County. She is writing a series this summer highlighting some of the local farms in Carlton County.
The Cloquet Farmers Market opens at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 5. It runs until noon at Premiere Theatres, 904 Minnesota Highway 33 South. The Carlton market opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday, June 15. It runs until 6 p.m. at a new location, McFarland Park off Minnesota Highway 210 and Grand Street, near the Four Seasons Sports Complex and Event Center.