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Mel's Musings: How do you know when a cow is ripe?

Growing up, most of my relatives were farmers in Wisconsin. They were evenly divided between Holstein Dairy farmers and Black Angus Beef producers with Grandpa running one of those "old time" farms that raised a bit of everything — animal and vegetable. My dad had a great sense of humor and, although he moved to St. Paul, at heart he remained a farm boy. My aunt, who married into the family, was a city girl who tried hard to fit in with all of the aggies. One holiday, when the whole family was gathered at my grandparents' for dinner, she asked innocently why some cows were black and some were both black and white. My dad replied quickly, "You know cows are ripe and ready for market when they turn completely black." At the time there was a popular steak house chain called "Black Angus" that had large black bovines out front, similar to the one in front of Chef Louie's, so it seemed plausible to my gullible aunt. We laughed about that for years.

Today, an American farmer feeds 155 people worldwide. The average size of a farm has doubled in my lifetime and operations are often highly specialized today, unlike my grandparents' farm of yesteryear. There are 915 million farm/ranch acres in the United States, 7 million fewer cultivated acres than existed in 2012. We've lost a million farms since 1960, down to our current total of 2.1 million, while during the same period our population has nearly doubled. Farmers are aging business people; the average age is 56 in South Dakota and 58 nationwide. What happens when farmers retire, or make the lucrative decision to sell out to a property developer instead of another farmer?

The federal government today controls 640 million acres, of which 85 million are national parks; some of the rest of those acres are rented out to producers for pasture or production. It may be time for the federal government to get into the farmland business by buying out retiring farmers and making that land available to other producers. Our national policy has been to support agriculture in order to guarantee a cheap and plentiful food supply. We can't grow our own food if housing covers every inch of the country. I don't want future generations to depend on foreign countries, in an ever-more populated world, for their food. If we ignore the economic pressures of farming, urban development on ag land prices and the fact that our farmers are aging, we may wake up and find we don't have any land left suitable to produce crops or people to work the fields.

In elementary school, I vividly remember my teacher asking where food came from. My classmate answered, "From the store!" I knew better, having spent some holidays and school vacations working on the farm. However, if we don't safeguard our farm ground, that little girl may have been more right than any of us could have imagined.

Non Illegitimi Carborundum