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Insights from Farming in 2019
In a diverse group of ag industry professionals, “AI” might mean: artificial intelligence, avian influenza, or artificial insemination.
This was the case during a panel discussion between producers of poultry, beef, and grains at the eighth annual Women in Agribusiness Summit. The event brought together 850 attendees to network and share knowledge on key topics affecting agriculture today.
The panel featured:
- Katie Brenny, fifth-generation farmer and owner of Brenny Farms, a Charolais and Angus cow-calf beef farm in southeast Minnesota
- Deb Gangwish, owner of PG Farms Inc. & The Diamond G. in Nebraska, a corn, soy, and cow-calf operation
- Amy Syester, co-owner of a poultry and grain operation in Delaware, raising more than 1 million birds annually
Pressure to Adopt Sustainable Practices
For Deb Gangwish, whose farm started out small and has now grown to 8,000 acres of corn, 2,000 acres of soybeans, plus a 2,000-head backgrounding lot, it has always made sense to adopt sustainability. “We look for ways to take care of ranch and resources and do more with less because those resources are our future.” While there does seem to be more of a push to adopt sustainable practices, Gangwish notes that there is a great opportunity now to communicate the farm management practices that incorporate sustainability through technology and conservation.
Just as AI means something different among us, so does sustainability, and it can’t be dictated from a marketing or communications department. To Katie Brenny, it means giving back to the environment that has given to her, so she can continue to grow beef.
In the Delmarva Peninsula that Amy Syester calls home, she’s keenly aware and proactive to adopt practices that protect the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, her family’s future, and the chickens in the poultry houses. “We’re able to monitor the poultry houses’ temperatures to a tenth of a degree. We have more energy efficiency in our new houses so our footprint is small there, but we’re constantly looking for ways to improve.”
Misperceptions Farmers Face
“I want folks to know that my heart and soul is in everything we do,” says Gangwish. Even if her farm looks different than others, with different technology and equipment, the level of care in the operation every day is just the same. She continues, “I really want consumers to know that there are many different ways of bringing food to the table. I respect every farmer, whoever they are, and their labor of love. We don’t have enough of us to be divided. Anyone who knows what it’s like to tend an animal, take care of crops, or have soil underneath their fingernails, understands what it takes to grow and nurture life, no matter if it’s urban farming or any other type.”
Syester echoes that working in the poultry industry is truly a commitment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She sometimes hears people outside the industry label her operation as a “factory farm” because of the number of birds in each flock. “My farm is managed by my husband, me, my son, a brother-in-law, and one employee. That’s how we get it done.”
In livestock production, misconceptions are easy to come by if animal activists promote the wrong message about the industry. Syester says, “It’s not in our best interest to do things that are harmful to our operation. We have to make sure we’re doing everything to get the most out of what we’re doing, because our profit margins are small. It’s critical to understand that organizations have put a lot of restrictions on our industry and our work can’t just be accomplished by automation.”
“We don’t do anything that’s going to cost more money or that’s going to harm our food because we all have to eat. I buy my groceries at the grocery store, just like everyone else,” says Brenny. The unique opportunity all people have, across the supply chain, is to connect over food and remember that there is a chain of people with processes to bring that food to the table.
Recommendations for Ag Business Decision-Makers
While stakeholders in the supply chain may have different goals, at the end of the day, it takes working together as a team to understand how decisions actually affect producers.
The relationships that Gangwish has built between her seed dealer, chemical supplier, and agronomists have given her a team of people to rely upon. “We’re always looking for more ways to grow and be more efficient, more effective, but we want to share the risk.”
Brenny, who also works as climate business manager for Bayer Crop Science, has a unique perspective on how industry decisions are made. “I would encourage those who get to make decisions in a boardroom to really socialize the idea. Take it to your field team or find a group of farmers and ranchers and pick their brain about it.” In the end, the team approach will provide more value to farmers and ranchers, be more profitable to the business, and better adopted.
The Future Farmer
The generational changes in agriculture pose challenges for younger farmers looking to start out on their own.
Brenny didn’t have the opportunity to go home to a farm, but she and her husband were able to secure an operation while working full time elsewhere. “I see it as a work balance. Can you get your job done and can you still farm?” She recommends that companies think about their future employees who do have a passion for agriculture and incorporate the flexibility they need to manage the unpredictability of farming plus their corporate responsibilities.
On the other hand, Syester sees the poultry industry struggling to attract people to work in poultry operations. “It’s not a fun job, it’s not a clean job, and it’s hard to make an income and have the farming lifestyle. We love what we do or we wouldn’t be doing it, because at the end of the day, it’s stressful, you’re tired, and financially strapped at times.”
Agriculture faces challenges, yet opportunity still exists. As Deb Gangwish says, “Sometimes I feel like ‘I’m just a farmer – who am I?’ But I have a voice and the industry needs to hear from us.”