Letter from Langdon: With Choices of Food, It’s All OK

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Making a living off “food farms” instead of USDA commodity farms isn’t easy. But it’s OK.

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Heritage Acres Pork, Sappington Market, Missouri’s Best Beef, and Gateway Beef. All are Missouri cooperative businesses, products of the Family Farm Opportunity Center (FFOC). FFOC is an outgrowth of Missouri Farmers Union that seeks to build new generation cooperatives offering better marketing power and products for Missouri family farms.

The way Joe Maxwell sees it, if farmers want to produce USDA regulated commodities, “It’s OK.” But if farmers want to grow and market food to earn a better return and sustain the family farm, then that should be OK, too, even though moving out of the commodity production comfort zone can require a commitment of time above and beyond the call of duty.

In addition to his full-time, off-farm job working in a local warehouse and operating the Maxwell farm, Steve Maxwell took on the task of driving a refrigerated delivery truck for Heritage Acres, the cooperative organic meat producer. That was his commitment to building market share among food retailers, and just one example of the extreme level of dedication offered by many of the farmers associated with the cooperative.

As with Steve’s mobile marketing entreaties, the challenge of building markets was borne out late last summer when I attended a Growing Growers of Kansas City market gardening workshop in St. Joseph. What I learned there confirmed that the challenges of marketing food can be almost as great as those involved in producing it.

Growers attending the workshop heard from agronomist/grower Tim Walters, Kansas State plant pathologist Megan Kennelly, and K State entomologist Ray Cloud. Then we all traveled south to the outskirts of town and Nature’s Choice, a “food” farm owned by Fred and Helen Messner.

Fred told us that small farms cannot compete on the same playing field with big commodity farms. Originally a Northwest Missouri dairy farmer, Fred took time out from farming to work in Australia. That’s where he met Helen. Eventually Fred and Helen came back to Missouri to settle down on the 40 acres that became Nature’s Choice.

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