Editor’s Note

Heeding our agricultural roots

By Steve LeBeau
Thursday, August 18, 2016

Some of my earliest memories were at my grandmother’s dairy farm in Stockholm, Wisconsin. I remember being attacked by a chicken. I was defeated for the moment, but I’ve had revenge numerous times over the years, aided and abetted by BBQ sauce and mesquite smoke. The rules at the farm were that “if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” so we kids were always trying to help. I offered to help push a wheelbarrow full of grain into the barn to feed the cows, but I couldn’t budge it. My uncle said, “You need to eat your potatoes.” I took him seriously, and had an extra helping of (homegrown) potatoes that night. I’ve continued that habit all my life — sometimes to excess when in the form of chips — but I’m happy to say my uncle was right. Now I can move that wheelbarrow.

Then there was the time I was in the vegetable garden with my mother, and she pulled a tomato off a plant and gave it to me to eat. It was ripe, juicy and delicious. It set such a high standard, that these days I can only find such tomatoes at the farmers market. Unlike a lot of city kids, I learned at an early age where my food came from. And I learned how good it can be when it is fresh. I am happy to see a greater interest these days in farm fresh foods, whether farmers markets or CSAs.

We always had fresh milk at the farm, too, and sometimes made it into ice cream. It took a little elbow grease, but boy was it good! That was my first lesson in “value added.” Others seeking to add value are returning to the time-honored ways of preparing food, with raw materials straight from the farm. These days there’s a ton of new food companies, everything from honey butter to buttery cookies to beer. But truth be told, there’s more to farming than what makes it to our table. Ever since Minnesota Territory farmers plowed the prairie soil to plant wheat, we have been harvesting more than we can eat — in a big way. Indeed, agricultural exports outrank manufactured ones, and account for a third of all exports.

Of course, a lot of things have changed since the gravy days of the Mill City. It always struck me that farmers had more common sense than city people. They were more in tune with nature because they depended on it. They could predict the weather by the smell of the air or the increased pain in a knee joint. Farmers still dance to an annual rhythm, but these days it is often accompanied with digital music coming out of an ear bud. As the small family farms gave way to larger and larger ones, operations became more digital and businesslike. This has made them targets for digital marketing, because they have this chronic habit of buying huge quantities of seeds, fertilizer and feed every year. Of course, the wise ones cut costs by combining their buying power and their productive capacity by cooperating.

I hope this focus on agribusiness helps you to put our statewide economy in wider perspective. At the very least, it should certainly serve to whip up your appetite!

Steve LeBeau
Editor in chief