No sheltering in place for Sanpete
farmer and rancher
By Robert Stevens
CENTERFIELD—Many Utahns are working from home via technology, but for many others, it’s business as usual.
The official term “essential worker” means someone is filling an essential role in society with his or her work.
Scott Christensen of Centerfield is a very essential worker, but he is not a medical professional or grocery store clerk.
Christensen is a fourth generation farmer and rancher. He raises more than 700 head of cattle each year on the 200-plus-acre Lazy C Ranch. He also grows grain required to feed his cattle on his family-owned farm.
“There are a lot easier ways to make money,” Christensen says. “I just have it in my blood. I guess I like the lifestyle because I was raised that way. I used to follow my grandpa and dad out the door as a kid. It’s all I have ever known.”
Christensen stays busy year round, and no amount of videoconferencing is going to get his work done, even during a public health crisis.
The Lazy C started out in 1941 when Christensen’s grandfather bought 120 acres of land in the Gunnison Valley. At first, he used horses for big jobs like plowing, but he eventually got a tractor as the farm became more successful.
The farm passed down to Christensen’s father, and then to him, as many family-owned farms do, and now it’s his turn to keep the farm going.
“Dad retired in 2011,” he says. “It’s too big of an operation for one person to do, but it’s too small to pay full-time staff. It’s also not a job a lot of people want to do. You almost have to have a passion to do it with all the things that are against you now.”
One of the biggest issues American agri-businesses like Christensen’s are facing is the amount they get paid for their harvest as commodity prices drop.
In the case of Christensen, payout from the packing companies for his beef continues to drop, while operating costs only go up. In the last 2.5 months, beef prices have dropped by $0.42 a pound, resulting in losses of upwards of $500 per head of cattle for producers like Christensen.
Christensen says the drop in profit off his cattle is just part of a bigger picture where the deck is being stacked against American farmers and ranchers. A near monopoly from a small handful of remaining packing companies results in a buyer’s market for beef.
“I think probably all farms are struggling right now really,” Christensen says. “Commodity prices are so low, and input prices are so high. It seems like you have a real good year followed by three to four bad ones, so you never get enough time to pull back ahead.”
The struggle of the American farmer is evident all over, including at home, says Christensen.
“There used to be dozens of small dairies,” he says. “Now there are three maybe. And they are the ones that hung on by volume to make up for poor commodity prices.”
Commodity prices are only one card in the stacked deck for farmers. According to Christensen, there is an unfair playing field between American-grown food and food imports.
Food imported to the U.S. from overseas will get repackaged in the states; then it will receive a sticker indicating it is an “American” product, despite not being produced here. The repackaged food is often a poor substitute for the real American goods, he says, and the cheaper, inferior product shouldn’t be grouped in with the domestic goods.
“Most farmers here in America are trying to produce the best possible product they can,” Christensen says. “They’re typically honest people who try hard to do it right.”
Challenges like these aren’t just stacking the deck against American farmers, says Christensen, they’re also stacking the deck against the American farm industry itself.
With the hard work and volatile market, Christensen says the younger generations are not choosing agriculture as a career any more. The average age of American farmers is now nearly 60, and without young farmers to take their place in the future, the American food supply could be at risk.
“I really want to help tell younger generations that farming can be an exciting career,” he says. “Most young folks just don’t want to farm, but we have to keep the farms going.”
Christensen says the concept is pretty simple: No farms, no food. With less young farmers, and urban development swallowing up approximately 64 acres of fertile farmland a day, we need to be careful to ensure the country will always have a plentiful supply of food.
“Most Americans don’t know that right now we do grow enough food to feed ourselves,” he says. “It has to stay that way, because everybody has to eat. Farming is the lifeblood of the world.”
With the confusion and fear that has accompanied the COVID-19 health scare, things like panic-buying are introducing some Americans to a concept they may not be familiar with—food scarcity. The concept is a novel one for modern Americans, but it shines a light on the importance of maintaining the country’s ability to feed itself through agriculture.
“I think this pandemic has made a lot of people stop and realize that food just doesn’t appear on the shelves of the store,” says Christensen, who has experienced an increase in people reaching out to buy beef directly from him after they found none at the grocery stores. “I think it might have been a wake-up call for some of them.”
Despite the novel coronavirus, and in the face of all challenges of being a farmer or rancher, Christensen has no plans to waver from agribusiness.
Since 2013, he has been raising grass fed beef, which takes more time to finish growing before it’s ready to sell, but he has experienced increasingly high demand.
“It’s really taken off,” he says. “I feel like it’s a healthier product, and there’s a pretty big movement of consumers who are concern
ed with their food being more natural.”
He’s also making a big push to cut out the middlemen—the packing companies—and selling more beef directly to consumers. By selling direct, Christensen says he is able to make nearly 70 percent more on his beef.
And he says the direct-to-consumer demand is growing, as are farmers markets and what he thinks is possibly the beginnings of more people trying to support local growers.
So while most farms struggle, and the country deals with uncertain times, perhaps the attitude towards farmers, especially the ones right at home, is headed in a better direction.
Either way, Christensen keeps up his “essential” lifestyle.
“We have to farm smarter,” he says. “This isn’t my grandpa’s farm with just a horse to plow anymore. You have to produce more on less ground every day. I’ll work till 10 p.m. with the crops this time of year. Lights on at night baling hay, haul all night long.”
Christensen says there will probably be new challenges every day for the rest of his life at the Lazy C.
“I enjoy watching the crops grow, and the livestock,” he says. “Like I say, it’s in my blood.”