Part 1: Issues Associated With Farming Come From Public's Lack Of Connection

Apr 22, 2014

"My Address Is" is a Utah Public Radio series exploring Utah issues associated with how and where we live. This is part 1 of 6.

Don Baldwin decided as a young man he wanted to be a dairy farmer, but the square mile, 600-head dairy he now owns in Lewiston began as a much smaller operation.

I grew up in Salt Lake City on the east bench. I come from a non-farm background, and we bought two heifers that had already calved, and 13 springers on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. We originally started with just those two cows on a rented dairy, an old dilapidated dairy, it took us almost a week to get enough milk in the bottom of a very small tank that they could even measure it where the truck could pick it up.

And we just started from there. Laurie and I working together. She worked as much as I did. I helped her in the house, she helped on the farm. Lots of times we had the kids with us in a cardboard box sitting in the barn or with us in a tractor, you know that's how they grew up was with us. And the kids worked too.

Don’s job on the farm is more than just an owner and dairyman, he grows most of the food used to feed his cattle, from plowing the ground to fertilization and harvesting and mixing the ingredients together. In a given week, he is husband, father, chemist, veterinarian and mechanic.

Don’s existence is intrinsically tied to the milk his cows produce and the land. He says public perceptions about where food comes from has affected farmers.

He believes the majority of the public has lost their connection to the farm, and it affects all aspects of his life. Whether cities are encroaching on the farm and getting upset by the smell, how food is produced, or legislative issues, the American populace is separated from their food by too many generations.

Ok, right now, we are hauling manure onto our fields. It's a by-product of the dairy, and it represents a valuable source of nutrients for our cropping and crop rotations. People used to understand that was part of the game. Now, there's a hue and a cry if we start hauling manure that we are contaminating the roads, we are destroying the aesthetic value of the community because it smells.

Utah is a right to farm state, which means if a farm is already in production when residential or business areas grow up around it, the farmer has a right to stay. But Don says that is being challenged on a personal basis, face to face.

As cities build up around land that has been traditionally farmed for several generations, the land values are pushed up exponentially high. If someone decides they still want to farm there, we face neighbors who have moved in there since we were there, and who want to change things and complain about dust from working the land, or when a wind storm comes up and there's dust that moves around, there's not a lot we can do about it, it's going to blow.

There are fears that if we use pesticides or herbicides on our crops, that their close proximity to that endangers themselves or their kids. We are very careful about how we apply chemicals. It's to our benefit to be very careful. But there are litigations that jump into our faces just because we have done something that is a cultural practice.

Another cultural practice being challenged on farms, is that of genetically modified organisms. Don believes farmers should be able to move forward with GMOS, because the fear about them comes from a misunderstanding of how farming works.

We’ve been genetically modifying things for centuries. We've just been doing it slowly. Cows 100 years ago, couldn’t produce near what a modern cow can produce, and it's because people selected for different traits to make a cow more productive, more healthy, which enables her to live longer. Consequently, she's more profitable and she feeds more people. It's still genetic manipulation, and there shouldn't be that fear in it.

The industry now has a pretty good idea of what the genomic map of cows is. We can use semen so that we breed a cow and she's going to have a heifer calf because we're able to eliminate out the guesswork, the Y chromosome. That's genetic manipulation.

But the nitty-gritty of how farming happens is not the only way farmers are impacted by the public’s loss of connection. Immigration reform is another way farms and those who work them are impacted. Don is a boss to multiple employees, some of which come from other countries.

I have Spanish-speaking employees, I have some from Mexico, some from Peru. I have English-speaking employees, I have first generation American citizens, whose parents came from Mexico.

One of the problems that we face, is that the American populace is generally spoiled. They don't want to work. They don't care to work. Or else they think there's something that should be given them, there's a sense of entitlement. Each generation, I think, for the last four generations, that sense of entitlement has increased. And I don't discount myself from that. I recognize that sense of entitlement in myself.

The Spanish guys are willing to work. They're good men, family men, just like we are. They have and accept responsibilities, they're looking for a better lifestyle, they're looking for the opportunity America has represented for generations to people who have emigrated from other countries.

Don says immigrants are the backbone of agriculture’s workforce, making immigration something that deeply impacts his farm, and something the general public and thought leaders don’t always understand.

But for Don, misunderstanding on Capitol Hill is not really a new problem. The legislation for businesses and farms enacted in capitol buildings across the country impacts day-to-day activity on a farm. For example, new tax law states if a farmer makes a repair to a piece of farm equipment that will prolong the life of the equipment, farmers cannot deduct the cost if it is more than $500. The cost is now a renovation, rather than a repair, and the item has to be depreciated.

It's insane. We can hardly buy any parts for under $500. It's not uncommon for us to spend 4 or 5 or $6,000 a part for some of our equipment. I put a front axle under a tractor, it was $6,000 bucks.

Other legislation has changed the ability of Don to transfer his farm to the next generation of his family. In 2001 President Bush signed the Economic Growth and Taxpayer Relief Reconciliation Act. The act reduced federal estate taxes, nicknamed the death tax, and increased the amount of untaxable property that can be transferred to the next generation.

According to the 2012 census of agriculture, the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 58.3 years old, with 62 percent of farmers older than 55. As Don plans for the future of his farm, he says his daughter and son-in-law have bought into the dairy, but the rest of his children have yet to decide what they want to do.

They might find something else that's their interest and their dream, and they need to pursue that. They don't need to pursue what I did.

Don’s son Morgan is 22, and graduates from Utah State University with a degree in economics in May. He says he’s trying to decide if he wants to go back to the farm, or work elsewhere.

My father has it set up that he wants us to have a firm decision by the time we're 25, he says you should have a pretty good idea what you're doing in life by then, and so right now I'm just kind of exploring other options, and deciding whether I want to continue in my father's business.

Regardless of what his children do, Don is proud of what he does because of how he has been able to positively impact society.

Dairy farming has been a good life for me. I've made a good living with it, I've raised a good family, it's been a good experience for me. It's not for everybody. But I did produce a viable product that was a benefit to society. I fed a lot of people in my life.

Don says many problems in agriculture could be averted and fixed if the public found a way to reconnect to, and learn about, agriculture- and the first step is looking at how food impacts the way we see the world. 

If they just understood how it impacts their lives, and would, it could have a great effect on the way they looked at agriculture.

If they understood agriculture, it would be easier to come to grips with all the other issues. They go to the grocery store and they buy food, some people are becoming naiive enough to think food comes from the store. And it doesn't. It first is produced on the farms.