I've been thinking about farms a lot lately, since I read about the topic nightly. My daughter's favorite book is "Big Red Barn" by Margaret Wise Brown (who also wrote the classic "Goodnight Moon"). Luckily for me, it's a wonderful book that I don't mind reading over and over and over.
By the big red barn
In the great green field,
There was a pink pig
Who was learning to squeal ...
There's a lot going on at this farm.
Grass seems to be the main crop:
There was a big pile of hay
And a little pile of hay,
And that is where the children play.
There's also a field of corn, where the scarecrow hangs out and field mice are born.
But in this story the children are away.
Only the animals are here today.
Mostly, the farm is a place for animals: Cows, horses, chickens, sheep, goats, geese, pigs, cats, dogs and a donkey all live together in harmony.
And they played all day
In the grass and in the hay ...
Most American children have an idealized image of farm life from our agrarian past. "The Big Red Barn" and many other children's books and movies portray farm families raising a variety of crops and animals.
In reality, many children will never actually see a family farm like this. Back in 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the U.S. to feed a population of about 127 million people. Today, there are only 2 million farms feeding close to 300 million Americans.
Farms today range from enormous single-crop operations and feedlots down to small retirement and hobby farms. More than half of American farms have owners who depend on non-agricultural income to make a living.
There are plenty of children today who may never have the experience of preparing soil, planting seeds, weeding, watering and watching a crop grow before picking and eating it fresh off the plant or out of the ground. There's a definite disconnect between crops grown or animals raised by farmers and the food that's available in supermarkets. Most food in our supermarkets travels vast distances, and much of it is highly processed, bearing no resemblance to anything that grows (just think about soft drinks, potato chips, marshmallows and cheese puffs).
Our federal farm policy primarily promotes the production of corn, wheat, soybeans and rice. These crops provide plenty of inexpensive calories for people and feed for livestock. We spend less than 10 percent of our income on food today, compared with about 24 percent in the 1930s. However, our cheap food comes with hidden costs: Obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates are higher than ever.
Part of the reason our food is so cheap is because oil and gas prices were low for many years. It was inexpensive for farmers to buy fertilizers made with natural gas. It was no problem to ship farm products long distances, because cheap gasoline kept transport prices low.
Now, cheap fuel is a thing of the past. Higher fertilizer and transportation costs are causing food prices to increase worldwide.
But there is a silver lining.
The local foods movement is starting to gain traction. The idea that most of our food should be grown, raised or caught close to where we live is a good one on so many levels. Local food is fresher, often tastes better and is more nutritious, whether it's from your backyard, your own farm, a food co-op or a farmer's market. Community-supported agriculture projects help give people a connection to their food, farmers and the land.
I wish all children could live on or near a farm a little bit like the one in "Big Red Barn," so they learn to make the connections between chickens and eggs, hot dogs and pigs, cows and milk and cheese and hamburger. They could see crops like peas, squash, apples and watermelons growing each season, and understand why different produce is available at different times of the year.
Many little kids dream of being farmers when they grow up. If the local foods movement takes off and family farms become more common once again, their dreams could come true. They may have big red barns of their own one day.
Kathryn B. Brown worked as a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner before coming to work for the East Oregonian. Her column appears here every other week. She can be reached at: