A changing family farm

The other day, as the sun rose over my farm, it reflected on the wet grass and I heard the familiar call of the birds. All my life, I have experienced mornings like this. For a long time, she was with my father while we were finishing the morning milking. After that, it was with my kids as we added chickens to our farm. And now, I am fortunate to share this sunrise with my grandchildren as our cow and calf operation benefits from a disciplined genetics program and we have achieved green cover on virtually all of our pasture land.

Like many others in America, my farm is a family farm. Generations have made a living off the land and I hope and pray that our land will continue to provide for many more generations. But my farm is not the same today as it was generations ago, and I’m sure it won’t be the same generations from now.

There is no standard definition of what every family farm looks like other than it is owned and operated by, you guessed it, a family. Some farms have been in the same family for over 100 years. And some are in their first generation. But as long as the land and business have been in the family, I’ll bet my bank account has changed over time. One thing remains the same, though. These farms are critical to providing the food, fiber and fuel we all rely on.

In my travels, I have been fortunate to be able to learn first hand about the changes in many family operations. When I visited Oregon earlier this year, I was able to visit the Iverson family farm. Their farm began in 1950 when Ross and Dorothy Iverson married and bought the farm together. They expanded and brought tulips to the farm as their six children grew up.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the family opened their tulip fields to the public, leading to their annual tulip festival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year. But, the festival itself was not enough to support the growing family that wanted to be part of the farm. So, over time, they have added other crops, looked for new technologies and adapted to meet consumer demands. After their family’s experience with CBD in the last days of Ross’s life in 2016, the family added hemp to their farm. Today, his farm supplies the most reputable CBD companies in the country.

In the middle of Connecticut, halfway between New York City and Boston, I met Liz MacAllister and her son, Mark Gillman, who ride 45 cows twice a day. From that milk, they make artisan cheeses right there at Cato Corner Farm, which they sell directly to consumers in New York City, Boston and the surrounding communities. In the 1970s, Liz started raising goats, sheep, cows, and chickens, but the money she was getting just wasn’t enough to keep the farm going.

So in 1997 he started making cheese to be able to continue farming and make a living. Just two years later, Mark quit his teaching job in Baltimore and returned to help his mother make cheese. Today, Mark is the master cheesemaker and Liz manages the herd. Together, they have grown the farm and been honored as one of the best cheesemakers in the US by Food and Wine Magazine.

We see this evolution in other family businesses in ag other than farms. In the southwest corner of Indiana, I recently met the Dewig family. They own and operate a small meat processing facility and grocery store that has become an important part of the local community. More than 100 years ago, in 1916, the Dewig family started Dewig Meats.

Since the second generation took over in 1962, they have continued to grow their facility and have added more local produce to their shelves along with meat they process from nearby farmers and their own farm. When I visited, the third and fourth generations were helping and excited to be a part of the business. They also shared their plans to seek grants as part of USDA’s efforts to expand our nation’s small and regional processing capacity. They hope the project will help them expand their business to serve even more neighbors and communities.

As our families grow and change, so do our farms and farming operations. Changes require adaptability, ingenuity and resilience, which are part of farmers’ DNA. Even as farms and agriculture change, a common thread unites us: family farms are planting seeds for a bright, sustainable future as we stock America’s pantries.

Zippy Duvall

Duvall is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation

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