By Kimberly Griffin
Here in the Northeast, fall is associated with crisp winds and colorful leaves. I find myself living in awe of these and other fall trademarks, and I hope that never wears. In August, I traveled to Illinois to be with my father’s family. As my husband and I biked down miles of country roads with nothing but corn and soy bean fields in sight, we remarked how differently each season must look and feel there, as compared to our own mountainous, lush, colorful environment. While we tromp through leaves on chilly hikes or as I pull vibrant green leeks and kale or equally vibrant carrots or squashes from the garden, we experience a very different fall in Vermont.
While there, we visited with a farmer friend and he and I eagerly compared practices. We both call ourselves farmers, yet our lives are such stark contrasts, and each of us reveled in the telling of the other. He produces two types of crops – corn and soy beans – on roughly one thousand acres. At College of St Joseph, I produce 11 different crops on roughly 1/6th of one acre (and growing). His combine (pictured above) is equipped with a GPS system, air conditioning, and a small under-seat refrigerator. I don’t use a tractor, much less a combine. By and large, the crops he produces cannot be eaten by humans, at least not in their raw form; they are processed into flours and meals, syrups and oils. By and large, the crops I produce are chopped or sliced, sautéed or baked and then eaten, typically within seven days of harvest. I practice organic practices, though not certified. He grows, and supports the production of, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), though not in every field.
The longer we talked, the more in awe we were of each other. Here I am, the “green, hippie, idealist, crunchy…. Vermonter”, and there he is the “evil, polluting, soil-destroying, big-ag… Mid-Western farmer” and we couldn’t be getting along better. Anecdotes not counted, there are many differences between us. He is in his mid-fifties, which according to the 2014 ag census, puts him close to where today’s American farmer averages, 58. I am in my thirties, representing only 6% of the farming population. 86% of the “primary operators” listed in the census are men, 14% are women.
Zoom out a bit, and we can compare production scales. Granted, I am not a production farmer, the food grown at CSJ has many purposes; however, we are not selling at market or to any major wholesale accounts. But, we do yield quite a bit for the dining hall, and have supplied a few restaurants in town with local veggies and herbs, along with the Open Door Mission. His 1,000+ acres would swallow my plots in the blink of an eye. Heck, his wife’s home garden is a closer comparison.
Zoom out a bit more, and let’s compare states. That same 2014 agriculture census shows Illinois ranking in the top 10 in number of farms, total ag sales, and total crop sales. Vermont does not. However, Vermont did increase its number of farms and its percentage of land farmed from 2007 to 2012 while Illinois decreased in both.
And then there is the geography. With such a vast tree-less, hill-less, and open landscape, how could you not farm hundreds upon hundreds of acres? If a Vermonter wanted to farm even 200 congruent acres, many of them would have to travel up mountains, over streams, or through quarries. Our landscape simply won’t allow such scales. And that is what I love about it. Farmable land exists in small pockets here, influencing and influenced by the formation of towns and villages. The crops produced on these lands often feed mouths within 50 miles, for ease of transport and for ease of market. The roads we drive from farm to farm could not accommodate a machine the likes of his Case International Harvester.
Though I certainly pride myself on where I live and the foods available to me, I cannot discount the way in which my Illinois friend makes a living, feeds his family and sends his children to college. What he grows is a commodity, traded on the market, and utilized for a variety of goods from dog food to cosmetics to wallpaper paste to gasoline, and, yes, food. With close to 40,000 items in the average super market, you bet there is plenty of demand for corn and soy.
While I try to eat a diet that is most nutritious, with lots of whole foods and limited in processed options, tortilla chips are a staple. My friend smiled when we told me that he has a whole section of acreage dedicated to certified non-GMO corn specifically for tortilla chips. I sighed and laughed.
At the end of our conversation, I eagerly invited him and his family to come take in the amazing fall we have to offer in New England. He smiled, and politely declined. October and November, you see, are the hardest working months for a Midwestern farmer. It’s harvest. And every time I hear this line from Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”, I think of my Illinois farmer friend:
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow.
Kimberly Griffin is currently working with the College of Saint Joseph to develop an on-campus farm for educational and edible use. She can be reached at
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.