HEROES OF AMERICA’S PAST AND PRESENT . . . CREATING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Saluting the stewards of our land and our health on National Farmer’s Day.
It’s safe to say that, if you’re like most Americans, you likely don’t have National Farmers Day, October 12, circled on your calendar. But as CEO of GENYOUth, a national youth-wellness nonprofit whose founding partners include America’s dairy farmers, I’m here to tell you that you should!
For the last decade, I’ve been privileged to get more of an inside peek at agriculture than viewed by most Americans. My work with, and on behalf of, dairy farmers to support the health and vitality of our nation’s youth has been the underpinning of everything I do. As a result, anyone who knows me is aware that I’m an unapologetic supporter of dairy farmers. This family-run industry is peopled by the most genuine, frugal, hard-working folks I know. Their history is storied, and their commitment to the health and wellness of Americans legendary. And that’s a fact that deserves both our support and celebration.
I’ve always felt that one of the reasons that we don’t think about farmers, nearly as often as we should, is because the average American family today is two or more generations removed from the true source of their food. As vital as farmers are to our economy, and our very existence, fewer than two percent of Americans rise before dawn every day to make sure the other 98% of us can enjoy an abundance of safe, wholesome, and affordable nourishment. It seems that Americans’ opportunities to connect with farmers are few and far between.
The dairy farmers I have come to know have the most amazing work ethic you can imagine. They go at full speed 24–7–365 to assure we all have a steady flow of nutritious dairy to enjoy. Add to it their unwavering commitment, not just to children (think of the 30 million U.S. children dependent on school meals), but to the larger, looming issue of food insecurity in general.
Here’s something else dairy farmers care deeply about: our planet. In fact, in a time when many aspects of our country’s food production are scrutinized and criticized, I’d say it behooves us to think about dairy farmers in a different way: as an environmental solution. It’s been said that farmers are the original environmentalists. Today, advances in agriculture continue to improve the environmental impact of dairy farms.
Did you know that everything essential to producing a gallon of milk in 2017 has decreased significantly since 2007, requiring 30% less water, 21% less land, and a 19% smaller carbon footprint? New on-farm technologies and practices are enabling greenhouse gas emissions reductions and significant improvements in water, feed production, cow care, energy efficiency and more.
These real results reflect the collective passion, energy and effort of farmers across this country working to solve our world’s greatest challenges.
One example? Connecticut farmer Matt Freund’s dairy farm features a methane digester that already was generating energy, but the process also creates a nutrient-rich, soil-like byproduct that some farmers use for composting and making biodegradable “CowPots,” flowerpots that offer an environmentally friendly solution to plastic options in the nursery and gardening business.
I was also fortunate to see firsthand the incredible work ethic and environmental commitment that our farmers are demonstrating each day when I had the pleasure of visiting SwissLane Farms, in Alto, Michigan, which is just outside of Grand Rapids. I was hosted by Annie Link, a fourth-generation family member of Swiss Lane, who explained how their program, Dairy Discovery, is a way they provide visitors to the farm a personal connection to their food, while also providing insights for how SwissLane is ensuring a sustainable future through their innovative farming practices.
In the same vein, Reinford Farms of Pennsylvania is working with grocery stores and food manufacturing companies to recycle up to 12,000 gallons of food waste each day. As a result, they have kept more than 35,000 tons of waste out of landfills in the past decade — preventing the equivalent of 133 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
There are more than 34,000 dairies in the U.S., and about 95% of them are owned and operated by families like Matt’s, Annie’s and Reinford Farms. No matter their size or location, virtually all are doing transformative work that aligns with the goal to achieve carbon neutrality, optimized water usage and improved water quality by 2050.
Corporate partners are supporting this kind of commitment to sustainability in a big way. A new $10MM commitment from Nestlé to “scale up climate-smart agricultural initiatives” on farms across the country makes those goals seem not just possible, but likely.
These kinds of investment and the ever-growing interest in farming extends far beyond the usual suspects. According to Agfunder, agricultural-technology startups have grown more than 80% per year since 2012 with investments from business leaders Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt. In fact, these investments matter now, more than ever, since agriculture, through its ongoing effort to innovate, can — and is — attracting a younger generation of Americans interested in how their food is produced.
Working as I do with young people, I see daily the Gen Z segment — ages 15 to 20 — increasingly showing a deep interest in how their food is produced, and that’s reflected in their purchase decisions. What went into the glass of milk that sits before them? Did the dairy farmer produce the milk in a way that was good for the planet and the animals?
Yes, dairy farmers have been at the epicenter of the pandemic and, for my part, what we have accomplished together in feeding 30 million children dependent on school meals over the past year has been nothing short of miraculous, and, to me, humbling.
As I’ve written before, dairymen and women are tougher and more resilient than the workers of any other business sector I know — and the giant “pause” that our economy took this year, and in some ways is still impacting so many of us, tested their mettle. They showed what they’re made of.
Let me close with this statistic.
According to the report, Agriculture 4.0 — The Future Of Farming Technology, we will need to produce 70 % more food by 2050 to feed a population growing ever faster. As I sit in the middle of this heartbreaking year, I am certainly grateful that my own kids have enough to eat. However, with that relief comes the constant feeling that I could, and should, be doing more in my role as the CEO of child health and wellness nonprofit, GENYOUth, to help ensure that more kids in this country are nourished. The very notion of yielding more food from this taxed planet of ours at such a great rate confounds me, and simultaneously redoubles my commitment and that of my team.
In the meantime, I’m sure of one thing. I’m putting my faith in farmers.