When this time of year rolls around, people pause to remember what a great country we live in and all that we have to be thankful for. We salute all those who fought to make sure this country remained free all these years, and we don’t take that freedom lightly.
There is another group that deserves our praise, and midsummer seems like the perfect time to reflect on that group, American farmers. While we need people in every profession, the one thing everyone has in common is we all eat. From grains to meats to fruits and vegetables, we owe thanks for every meal to America’s farmers.
Some things never cease to amaze me. Recently, I was weeding the garden and thinning the sweet corn as we planted it a little too thick. As I pulled the young seedlings out, I noticed how they were still attached to the seed. It’s pretty incredible how one stalk of corn comes from one tiny seed.
It gets even more phenomenal. One kernel produces one stalk of corn, which in turn produces one or two ears. One silk is attached to each kernel allowing it to receive pollen. An ear has between 400 and 600 kernels arranged in 16 rows. (This is why when you eat four rows at a time off an ear of sweet corn the empty cob looks square instead of round!) One bushel of corn contains 90,000 kernels. When farmers plant corn, they sow between 28,000 and 45,000 seeds per acre and that acre in turn produces an average of 170 bushels of corn. All of this comes from one little seed. Wow!
Wheat is another staple grain that America uses in abundance. For all of us carb-lovers who cannot live without bread, pizza and cookies, wheat is our friend. The “amber waves of grain” from the song “America the Beautiful” refers to acres of golden wheat swaying in the breeze. It blows my mind to even try and correlate the number of cups of flour that Americans use per day to how much wheat it takes to make a cup of flour.
One stalk of wheat can produce up to 200 grains. It takes between 5 ounces to 1 cup of wheat, depending on the variety and density, to make 1 cup of flour. A bushel contains 60 pounds of wheat with an average of 16,000 grains per pound. That equals 960,000 grains per bushel, and an average wheat yield is 56 bushels per acre.
What all these figures boil down to is that it takes a lot to feed America. Farmers also grow the grains and grasses it takes to feed the livestock that also feed us. In the middle of all this is the uncertainty that farmers face every day.
Most of us work on a yearly salary or are paid so much per hour so we know exactly how much money we make per week, whereas farmers’ incomes are determined by so many variables. First and foremost is the weather. The best seed hybrids can be planted and the best fertilizers added to the soil, but without the proper amount of moisture, the yield per acre will still be down. On top of this are the markets where the value of the grains change every day. Trying to know if to store the grain for future sales or selling when harvested becomes a complicated guessing game.
A case in point to prove all this happened while I was writing this article. It began to storm so I shut my computer off so I wouldn’t lose it to a lightning strike (been there, done that!). Our garden and the field of oats behind our place had been green and lush all summer as we have had ample rainfall. After the storm and as I am finishing this article now, the whole field of oats is lying flat and our sweet corn is no longer standing. It just goes to show how quickly things can change in a farmer’s life.
The economy, the weather and higher prices of seed and soil treatments have forced many farmers to grow into big corporations. No longer can the small farmer compete unless he grows specialty crops like cabbage, celery, carrots and other vegetables. Specialty crops like these, as opposed to staple crops like corn, wheat and beans, produce a higher yield on a few acres.
So, why do farmers stick it out through all the adverse conditions when they could choose an easier way to make a living? Because once farming is in your blood, it is there forever. Farmers everywhere, we salute you and thank you for what you do. You truly are our bread and butter.