The importance of networking with farmers to see and learn from our peeps, both in Louisiana and afar
By Amelia Levin Kent
Opportunities to connect and network with other farmers and ranchers are something I don’t take for granted. I’m writing this as we’re concluding the seventh beef tour through Louisiana Farm Bureau’s Livestock Advisory Committee. As I reflect on these trips spanning Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and now Florida, I am amazed at how priceless these experiences are. We’ve seen small farms and large ranches, incredibly rich seedstock operations, dairies which process milk on site, and make cheese and ice cream, stocker outfits weaning and preconditioning tens of thousands of cattle - the list is endless and I can go on and on.
In full disclosure, after each of these trips, I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of saying, “this was the best trip yet!” Yet, what strikes me about the trip to Florida is how similar our environmental challenges are and what we can learn from much larger scale ranches utilizing many of the same grasses we have. The visits to Mississippi and Arkansas were similar in that aspect, as we share very similar climates and soil structures. An example being that in many parts of our state, away from the river bottoms and rich delta soil, we have sandy loam soil and Bahia grass. Across much of the country, Bahia grass is considered unfavorably in comparison to other forage options. But on our farm, with our naturally acidic soil, that’s the primary warm season forage on which we depend. Quite frankly, with proper grazing management, our Bahia grass serves our cow/calf operation quite well. To see the ranches we visited in Florida utilizing many of the same grasses in their cowherd management, on a MUCH larger scale, was refreshing and inherently offers grazing management insight more applicable to our Bahia grass than management priorities and goals with other types of grasses.
Another common theme we saw on our visits was the longevity of these family businesses. Granted, the initial land purchases were made in a very different time than our current economy, and it was possible to purchase large tracts of land at a reasonable (if not cheap) price per acre. Many of these acquisitions occurred after the Great Depression, and it was possible to purchase tens of thousands of acres with much less risk and entry costs than in today’s financial climate. One of the farms we rent has a parallel development story along the same time frame. Unfortunately, I do not see that sort of growth and expansion as an option for most in our era of slim commodity margins.
Yet, the second part of what was so striking about these family businesses is the ability of multiple generations that have come together and successfully kept the land in tact and the businesses viable. As part of my family is facing a daunting estate succession, seeing these ranch families successfully keeping the business alive while simultaneously bringing younger generations into the operations is incredibly encouraging!
Moreover, seeing how these family businesses are utilizing all of their natural resources while maintaining conservation priorities is enlightening. These ranches are working with various water management and environmental groups as well as research institutions to continually prove that agriculture is in fact sustainable and beneficial to the environment, which is absolutely inspiring. In our social climate of people blaming agriculture for climate change and pollution challenges, these working relationships and collections of data are integral in our efforts to protect and defend our industry. A saying that stuck with me refers to the argument that cattle are causing pollution of the Everglades downstream. The response is that Florida has had the same number of cattle for more than 100 years, yet the population has grown 20-fold to 22 million people in that same time and the number of visitors is over 115 million people each year. The Everglades weren’t polluted 100 years ago, so how are the cattle to blame?
Something else that is so special about these trips is the opportunity to meet and develop friendships with new people while also spending quality time with old friends. Not only are we meeting people through the tours, we’re also visiting with peers from throughout our state. One of the things I learned early in my advocacy journey is how important networking is. When approached with questions, I know there is no way I can answer everything I’m asked. But you can be sure I know someone who does know the answers I do not, and they’re often just a phone call away. I encourage everyone get passed their farm gates to see and learn from our peers, both in Louisiana and afar.