Who Will Grow Our Food?

September 17, 2020

by Sylvia Burgos Toftness, Board Chair, Farm Table Foundation

The frost-encrusted grass crunched underfoot this morning as I went out to open the chicken coop. Hearty birds, they immediately ran around, pecking for insects. My cattle weren’t quite as content. They bellowed, demanding to be moved to fresh grass. “Just hold on,” I hollered as I approached their pasture gate.

Being surrounded by fields and livestock was just a dream when I was growing up in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem in the 1950s and 60s. At that time, food meant visiting the local mom-and-pop grocery store down the block, or taking a bus to a supermarket with aisles of towering shelves and freezers that spilled chilled air.

I would never have imagined this morning’s chores 25 years ago while raising two children in south Minneapolis, balancing a full-time job with family. I had a garden—my son loved beet greens, and my daughter hated picking the bush beans. It was in those years that I first met farmers and had the opportunity to walk 1,000-acre fields of sunflowers, and 100-acre fields of carrots. I got to see where food comes from.

That was then.

Ten years ago (after full careers in chiropractic and public relations, respectively), my husband David and I began raising grass-fed, grass-finished beef. We use sustainable practices to promote health—of the land, our livestock, and, ultimately the nutritious beef we sell to customers. We buy our vegetables at the local farmers’ market, and eggs, beans, grains, and herbs from our local natural foods store. We’ve been surrounded by plenty.

Then March 2020 happened, and things changed. Today, all of us are scrambling to navigate life in the time of corona. Like everyone else, I was shocked by empty shelves. And, as a farmer, I was hit by the lack of local meat processing for my beef. How was I going to get my cattle transformed into the steaks, roasts, and ground beef my customers need?

I understand that today’s dominant food system makes eating primarily local foods very challenging. At the same time, COVID-19 has revealed inherent weaknesses within the industrial agriculture model.

Within weeks of first hearing the words “coronavirus,” many large meat processing plants shut down or radically reduced operations as infection rushed through their assembly lines. (According to the Wall Street Journal, just four international corporations control between 70 percent and 85 percent of the US pork and beef markets, respectively.) Grocery store meat chillers showed gaps, and some grocers implemented rationing. Flour and yeast disappeared, and we learned to bake sourdough.

Then there were videos of farmers dumping floods of white as processing plants refused to pick up raw milk. Vegetable farmers began to plow under crops, and pork growers found themselves with tens of thousands of pigs and no processing available.

Now it’s September, and we’re all struggling to adapt to America’s teetering economy, continued health threats, and fractured food system. We’re all working to find reliable sources of protein, produce, dairy, and eggs.

Parts of both Minnesota and Wisconsin are blessed with communities of smaller farms; however, our situation is far from secure. The infrastructure that once facilitated local food systems nearly disappeared with the growth of industrial agriculture.

The recently reported fragilities of the American food system point to the importance of reinvigorating local food systems.

Small- and medium-sized livestock producers need more smaller-scale processors. Many shuttered in the last five years, and now the remainder can’t meet growing demand. We also lack shared commercial freezer space—lockers once common in every rural community. Produce growers similarly need smaller-scale processing facilities and distribution channels, as well as reliable markets (from farmers’ markets, to direct purchasing, to restaurant and grocery stores buying more local products). These are business needs, and business opportunities, that will help rebuild our local systems.

This year, we’ve heard lots of news stories about the fragility of our food system. In response, many started gardening. Others ventured into keeping chickens or bees. Lots of us tried our hands at new skills: baking, fermenting, cooking, and canning. We’ve spent hours Zooming (yes, it’s now a verb) to learn how. The challenges will continue, as will the need for us to work for a more secure field-to-plate food system.

Fortunately, there are things we can do now, and, thanks to the internet, you can find sources from the comfort of your home. Search for farms that raise produce and/or livestock that are “pastured,” “grass-fed and grass-finished,” sustainably raised,” and “certified organic.” Search for a local “natural foods” store, or “natural foods cooperative.” Search Google for “local farms,” and make some calls to find out about availability, deliveries, and costs. And if you already purchase a CSA (community supported agriculture) share, ask your farmer for other local sources. 

To learn more about Sylvia’s farms, and the classes she teaches, visit www.bronxtobarn.com or www.bullbrookkeep.com.