Down on the Farm in Rosharon: Up Close and Personal with South Texas Farmers

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, Registered Dietitian, Past-Chair of the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group (DPG) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,  recent winner of the prestigious Medallion Award, and author of “School Meals That Rock”.

 

Every time I visit a farm or ranch – of any size – I am struck by three factors. The first is how deeply farmers and ranchers care about their way of life and the safety of the food they grow. They work hard – very hard – to care for the land and their communities, while utilizing the latest technology. And, finally, Ag families are so welcoming to visitors and delighted to share details about life on the farm.

Thanks to the IFIC Foundation, which recently held a farm tour and communications workshop just before the annual Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics meeting in Houston, my colleagues and I were able to get an inside look at agriculture in South Texas. Curt Mowery hosted food and nutrition professionals at his family farm. Mowery is a 4th generation farmer on his family’s 100-year old farm in Brazoria County, just a few miles south – but a world away – from the tall office buildings and bustling Convention Center in downtown Houston.

Curt Mowery was an enthusiastic and transparent host – you would have never guessed that it was his first farm tour! We were joined on our six-hour agricultural adventure by several other experts, including Gene Hall (Texas Farm Bureau), Brent Batchelor (Texas AgriLife Extension Service) and Dr. Kevin Wagner (Texas Water Resources Institute), along with several other local farmers. Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and farmer on her family’s 2,000 acre farm in eastern Maryland, was also along to provide her unique professional and personal perspectives. All our hosts were eager to answer questions – from the highly technical to the more mundane – and discussed hot-button agricultural issues in an open and forthright manner.

Curt Mowery and his family farm 3,000 acres of rice, corn, soybeans and wheat sorghum – using both conventional and biotech seeds. The Mowerys live on their land, eating the crops and animals that they and their neighbors grow. Like any savvy 21st century business people, they utilize the latest technology – every tractor and combine has a computer screen and GPS – to collect, store and analyze data. This enables them to make a living in an uncertain, weather-dependent business, while minimizing their environmental impact. Today’s high-tech farm equipment helps Curt and his fellow farmers to minimize their water consumption (especially during drought conditions), limit their use of fertilizers and pesticides, and reduce the overall carbon footprint of their operations. It also helps them to comply with environmental regulations and mandated testing by a variety of different government agencies.

Sustainability has to be top-of-mind for any farmer. They have to look for ways to sustain and improve production on their land, especially with changing weather patterns and pressures from the rapid growth of American suburbs. The reality is that family farms are only economically viable if there are future generations to continue on, and if they can be profitable doing so — and neither is guaranteed. 

Farms like the Mowerys’ may be large, may sell their products, and may use the same wiz-bang technology that we all enjoy on our smartphones. However, they are also incorporating age-old practices that fit with modern conditions. During the tour, we learned about a variety of tillage methods designed to reduce water needs while improving the amount of organic matter in the soil. During the recent serious Texas droughts, agricultural water access decreased crop yields significantly, while personal lawns continued to account for a third of available water usage.

 

As a food and nutrition professional, I am convinced that first-hand agricultural experiences are essential for the ongoing and necessary conversations about the future of food. In order to produce food efficiently and feed the growing global population – while sustaining local communities and the environment — we will need to work together. The farm to fork connection – between farmers large and small and consumers local and faraway – needs to be strong and transparent so that we can utilize all the resources available to us.

 

The 2013 IFIC Foundation Farm Tour helped to build those connections between some national nutrition leaders and a group of south Texas farmers. I hope that everyone involved in America’s food chain takes the opportunity to visit farms and to really listen to farmers and their point-of-view as often as possible. I know that I will.

 

 

 

Dayle Hayes, MS, RD (Registered Dietitian) is a longtime fan of farm to fork, especially farm to school programs. She helps agencies and organizations create healthier school environments across the country. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and read in-depth analysis of school food issues on her blog, School Meals That Rock.