What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That was the overwhelming sentiment from three growers who shared their stories during the panel discussion “Beyond the Farm Gate: Today’s Challenges Create Tomorrow’s Opportunities” at the Bayer AgVocacy Forum in San Antonio, Texas this week.
Jay Hill, a second-generation farmer in southern New Mexico, painted a picture of what he thought his life was going to look like on what he calls his “sandbox farm,” but that picture didn’t include staying up to 3 a.m. with an accountant and praying to God about bills. It didn’t include people lashing out at him for what he does every day out in the field … when deep down inside, he knows he is trying to save the environment.
That picture also didn’t include wondering what will happen to the farm when he’s gone.
“What happens when I’m gone?” Hill said. “I don’t see people stepping in behind me. I don’t see people taking the risks I am taking now.”
Hill Farms produces more than 18 million pounds of onions, three million pounds of fresh lettuce, and an assortment of other vegetables. Just short of 1,000 acres now, Hill’s operation implements GM, conventional, and organic practices on the farm and has expanded to restaurant and grocery distribution based out of his commercial pinto bean cleaning facility. Hill also owns and operates Wholesome Valley Farms, which includes hydroponic greenhouse production, vegetable seed production for Bayer, and a large organic vegetable farm. He also retails a line of New Mexico chile sauce online, as well as in area grocery stores.
Seventeen miles from the border, immigration, regulation, and trade support are key issues for Hill. Working every day on his farm to meet EPA, state regulations, emission controls, etc., he has concerns seeing what is coming across from Mexico every day.
“We need some sort of system to slow down or gives bigger incentives to American farmers to grow those crops,” Hill said.
Labor is also an issue. Every day his workers ask if they are going to get shipped home or if ICE is going to show up in the field and pick them up. Their labor is vital to the operation.
“If you don’t take care of the people who work for us, you can’t take care of yourself,” Hill said.
While her farm does not employ immigrant labor, Deb Gangwish, co-owner of PG Farms, Inc. and The Diamond “G,” a family farm and ranch in Nebraska with a custom seed corn harvest and trucking company employing 20 full-time and 10 part-time employees, echoes Hill’s comments about her own team.
“Our team is vital to our farm,” Gangwish said. “They are part of our everyday life.”
Gangwish also credits technology, such as Climate Corporation, in helping her family farm continue to operate efficiently.
“It’s that kind of technology that is going to help us get through some of these times because we need that data to make smart decisions,” Gangwish said.
Tough times also meant diversifying PG Farms, Inc. and The Diamond “G” geographically. Gangwish’s farms are three hours apart, but the operation has made it work.
“Agriculture is its own beast. We ride cycles and hang on when many people probably wouldn’t,” Gangwish said. “It’s in our blood.”
Ray Gaesser, who has been farming for 40 years in southwest Iowa, knows those cycles all too well.
“We need to prepare for times that aren’t good,” Gaesser said. “With policy work, we need to remember all of agriculture as we work together.”
Healthcare is a key issue for Gaesser as it is a significant portion of his 6,000-acre operation’s costs and the price continues to go up.
He’s also concerned with consumer views on farming, especially the term “factory farms.” Gasser pointed out 97 percent of farms are family farms and they do care.
“A factory farm is just a family farm that hasn’t told their story right,” Gaesser said.
It’s a story all three growers encourage others to share daily to a world of consumers who are now two to three generations removed from the farm.
“Those little moments every day on the farm, that we just take for granted, can still be shared,” Gangwish said.