Dumping farm products is familiar to this former farm boy | Column
This isn’t the first time farmers have thrown away food, but there is a better approach.
Gallons of whole milk line the shelves in September in St. Petersburg.
Gallons of whole milk line the shelves in September in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Apr. 22, 2020

It is sickening to hear about farmers in Wisconsin and Ohio dumping thousands of gallons of milk into manure pits, one in Idaho burying 1 million pounds of onions in ditches dug for that purpose, and some in South Florida plowing fields of ripe beans and cabbage into the ground. Meanwhile, food banks and soup kitchens are begging for donations to restock their bare shelves, while millions of laid-off workers wonder how they will be able to continue to feed their families.

With restaurants and schools closed across the country, the markets those farmers have relied upon to buy their produce have disappeared. Should we expect the farmers to add to their losses by paying workers to harvest the crops and then hiring truckers to deliver the produce to the bare shelves of food banks many miles from the dairy barns and agricultural fields? Hardly seems fair.

[ DAVID KLEMENT | David Klement ]

I have an inkling of the heart-wrenching emotions those farmers are going through as they see the fruit of their labors turned into garbage. For this isn’t the first time farmers have had to destroy their crops for economic reasons. I was a 14-year-old in 1954, a child worker in my family’s dairy farm in Texas. It was a period of drought, which caused the price of grain and hay to soar. Farmers were forced to cull their herds to cut feed costs, which glutted the cattle market.

On a dairy farm, cows are bred annually to refresh their milk-producing cycle. That means one new calf for every cow once a year. With a herd of 40 cows, there might be two to five young calves at any given time. We usually kept one or two of the new female calves to raise for herd replacements, and one male that would become our future dinner fare. The rest were sent to market, where they might bring $5 or $10 apiece; in good years, maybe $20.

But in 1954, they were virtually worthless: “Not worth the gas to take ‘em into town to sell,” my father informed me as he handed me his .22 rifle and ordered me to take the three newest calves out to the pasture and dispose of them.

Shoot these three adorable little calves? Yes, that’s exactly what he was ordering me to do – perhaps because he thought the experience would help me to become a man, I don’t know. He never did say why. I did as I was told, knotting lengths of twine around their necks to lead them away from the barn, although they followed right along since they associated me with their twice-daily feedings since being weaned.

So, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I pulled the trigger three times that terrible day 66 years ago, leaving the calves as food for buzzards, must be akin to what the farmers dumping their crops because of COVID-19 must be feeling today. Such a disgusting waste of food in a time of need. Only a farmer can truly appreciate the loss.

But of course, it doesn’t have to end this way. Years ago, when I wrote about this experience for the Detroit Free Press, folks asked, “Why didn’t you donate the calves to an orphanage? Or some kind of charity?” The thing is, this wasn’t an isolated incident. The beef glut was common knowledge, but no one was stepping up to take surplus beef off farmers’ hands and contribute it to charity. That betrayed an expectation that the farmers should add to their losses by going to the trouble and expense of distributing the surplus to the needy.

But what if there were leaders in this country who actually led in this crisis? What if we had a president with the vision to establish a Workers’ Produce Administration that paid laid-off food service workers to go to the farms and help harvest and bring the produce in to the city food banks? Hmmm, WPA – that has a certain ring to it.

What if this president also offered to pay other laid-off workers to staff the food banks, assisting the overworked volunteers who know how to package and distribute fresh food to the millions who have trouble putting a meal on the table?

That sounds like a real plan to ease the pain of this national economic shutdown. Just as a coordinated federal agency responsible for securing and distributing ventilators and personal protective equipment would have eased the crisis for health care workers. A Health Equipment Agency assuring doctors, nurses and hospital administrators in all 50 states they will have the resources they need to deal with the virus would save untold numbers of lives. Unfortunately, we also don’t have such an agency.

Once upon a time, we had leaders who weren’t afraid to lead. FDR’s New Deal was a bold package of legislation and executive orders designed to bring the country out of the Great Depression. Enacted in a remarkably short period, beginning in 1933, it was built around three R’s: relief for the unemployed, recovery of the economy, and reform of the financial system whose collapse had triggered the depression.

Where is the leadership in 2020 to first conceive of such bold action to begin restoring America to economic health and then to actually enact it? I don’t see it among the elected officials currently in Washington, in either party. They seem too busy concocting partisan schemes against one another to sit down and come up with a coordinated plan for relief, recovery and reform.

Don’t look to the farmers to bail out the dysfunctional food distribution system. They’ve done their part. It’s up to our leaders to figure this out – if they’re capable of it.

David Klement is a retired journalist and freelance writer living in Bradenton.