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Ken Root has been a farm broadcaster for 39 years with time spent in Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington, D.C., Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. He has also been a columnist for the past seventeen years. Ken's opinions are his own, his memories are of an Oklahoma childhood and his wit is sometimes so sharp that some folks don't know they've been cut.

You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you wish to encourage more columns or criticize his latest attempt to get to "The Root of the Problem"

  • Parent Category: Blog

Ireland and U.S. - Entwined Past, Shared Future

Root of the Problem

By WGFA National Farm Broadcaster, Ken Root

Ken Root has just returned from an agricultural tour of Ireland. He has been leading groups on international trips for almost forty years but this was his first to the Emerald Isle.


Ireland is as green as they say. The sky is often cloudy and rain is almost a daily event. Looking at the globe, Ireland is comparable to New Zealand in its latitude and climate. Both are lush, green and temperate and both have the ability to grow grass for most of the year. The future for these island nations may lie in their competitive advantage in turning succulent cellulose into meat and milk for the growing international market that lies between them.

It was a joy to travel across Ireland because the land is beautiful and the people are friendly. They welcome Americans and converse easily about all kinds of issues. We have a shared relationship going back to massive immigration during the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century. In American, the Irish were the Mexicans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are forty six million Americans who claim Irish ancestry while the island nation's current population is less than five million.

The Irish are long suffering in their relationship with Brittan and hold deep animosity for how they were treated. The past is not past when they tell you of the millions who starved while grain was exported from Ireland to England or when an Irish independence movement was snuffed out in 1916. They like Americans as we were the first country to recognize them as a republic and Irish Americans have a love for their home country and its customs. When you get right down to it, we all want to be Irish, at least on St. Patrick's Day.

Ireland is positioning it's agriculture for a run at the international dairy market in 2015. We surmised this by touring a registered Holstein-Friesian farm near Dublin and a dairy product research center. Both were anticipating the European Union to end quotas for dairy production in the next two years and allow countries to determine the agricultural commodities they will produce based on more of a free market.

Irish dairy farmers have shown that they can be competitive in the world market due to low cost forage. Translating grass to dairy products beats grain fed cows in cost of milk produced. To show that advantage, butter from Ireland is common in many countries around the world today. Ireland also is developing a reputation as a high quality provider of infant formula. A researcher cited that Ireland has only one percent of the world's milk production but produces fifteen percent of the world's infant formula. They were quick to report that New Zealand had an e coli outbreak in milk shipped to China. Middle class Chinese parents, rearing a single child, are willing to pay exorbitant prices for the highest quality food possible and Ireland would love to have a piece of that growing market.

The distance from markets doesn't seem to be an impediment for Irish dairy farmers. Although fluid milk is freely transported to EU countries, the dairy researchers are working on "components" for cheese and other dairy products that can be separated and shipped for thousands of miles. We were given the example that India needs dairy components to fill a need for traditional foods and Ireland is figuring out ways to produce them. Ireland also has peak milk production months due to grazing cows on pasture. They are developing more efficient equipment to make milk powder that can be stored and sold during the three months when production is low.

To Americans, Irish agriculture looks inefficient. Pastures are only a few acres in size and surrounded by rock walls, hedge rows or fences. The roads are narrow (It was best not to look at how close our bus came to the cliffs and cars) so transportation is a challenge for trucks that pick up milk from the many small farms. But consolidating Irish agriculture is going to be a slow process. Our guide said that only one tenth of one percent of Irish farmland sells in any given year. The price is now over ten thousand Euros ($13,800) per acre but much lower than the pre-recession period.

Ireland has a lot of determined farm operators. Their scale is small but their energy is high. Whoever picked the rocks out of the fields and built fences is proof that they have great ambition. The land is good in some regions but shallow and rocky over much of the island. The general workforce seems to be as durable as their agricultural sector. Irish people say they were a third world country until they entered into the European Union in 1973. At that point they began to open their borders to other EU countries and today they talk of driving a truck to Spain like we talk of making a freight run to Texas. The EU developed a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that taxed the people to keep farmers on the land. It has generally been successful but very expensive. Europe's economic woes have caused the EU to reevaluate that policy, hence the likely end to quotas and reduction of subsidies in 2015.

Ireland is a country to watch as they try to put their past behind them and move toward a brighter future based on natural resources and work. It might help if they use some of their luck as well.

  • Parent Category: Blog

The Last Slice of Americana?

Root of the Problem
By WGFA National Farm Broadcaster, Ken Root

Rural communities are shrinking in size and the traditions and values of the past are not guaranteed in the future. Ken Root attended the funeral of a lady who was part of the structure of a church and farming community that, like her, is passing away.

Family members walked down the center aisle of the small Catholic Church, each carrying a rose that they placed in a vase below the cremains of "Granny Franny" whose life was being celebrated on this clear summer day. Her family, from husband, James, to great grandchildren, were all tucked into the first five rows. The priests, one retired and one active, came in to perform the Mass as the community compressed themselves into every pew to show their respect for this lady who had served food and provided support and comfort for baptisms and weddings as well as the many wakes and funerals that are part of an aging community.

What we have experienced for over a century, from the dry plains to the lush hills along the rivers, is disappearing. We have been served a rich slice of a unique culture that is fading away with the death of each resident of our small towns. The ritual of community service, life-long dedication to friends and quiet respect for those who pass, is a hallmark of rural existence. I saw it first hand in this small town as I mourned with family and felt their strength and unity.

In a broader view, the town of Glen Haven sits below the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Southwest Wisconsin. There is one main street reaching from the old river port up the hill. The single white spire on the church is the high point in town. A stream tumbles along Main Street, inviting children to play in the clear water.

Nestled in a notch in the hills on a long slope running down to water's edge, the town no longer has any river business except the boaters who come over for Taco Wednesday at a local bar. A railway main line runs close to the shore. Frequent whistles are heard as millions of tons of freight zoom by but the trains never stop in what would otherwise be a very quiet little town.

Glen Haven's population has declined for a long time. The 2000 census showed fewer than five hundred, probably half the number who lived there at the beginning of the last century. Today, the town folks say you can cut that in half again, even if you count all the dogs and cats.

Longevity is hallmark of rural people. The tough survive and the length of life of our seniors of the northern states is the highest in the nation. Franny and James lived on a farm for their fifty four years of marriage. He has lived near this town, on this Century Farm, his whole life and farmed until he crossed into his seventies. He possesses many pioneer skills and still tinkers in his shop, entertaining visitors who want to learn some of what he knows.

In this German and Irish Catholic region, the tribute to a departed soul begins with a wake and ends with a funeral dinner. The small church basement serves as a kitchen and the word goes out that desserts are needed and cooks and servers should congregate to stage the meal. On the afternoon of the visitation, or wake, the line of friends stretches from the front sidewalk through the entryway and down the right hand side of the pews. It then curls around to where the family greets each person. They stand for hours to receive condolences and support. Handshakes, hugs and heartfelt thanks abound.

On the day of the funeral, the church was adorned with flowers and pews were marked to accommodate family. The meal preparation began early with some dishes prepared in the church and some brought in and kept warm in big ovens. Simple, tasty and hearty; the same as a Sunday dinner or harvest fare for past generations. It was comfort food to farm folks before the terminology was popularized.

The church bell tolled at 10:30 am. The service opened with a eulogy given by the oldest grandson; the reason why she became known as Granny Franny. His voice was sad but strong as he talked about his memories of his grandmother with nods of agreement and encouragement by all who knew her. He sat down quietly as the service began and moved through a ritualistic Mass that most knew by heart. When it concluded, the priests invited everyone to lunch and they were given the opportunity to go directly to the basement or to the cemetery with assurance there would be food left when they returned.

The service at the graveside was short. It was the final Christian good-bye that tries to bring closure to death and celebration of life. Respect, even relief, is expressed with reverence and hope of salvation.

The family walked into the church basement filled with conversation and bustling as meat, potatoes, vegetables, salads, milk, lemonade and many other small plates of specialty items were laid out for two lines to pass through. Old tables and flimsy folding chairs rattled as each place was filled. A young woman did double duty. She had been a Mass server in a white robe, now, in summer attire, she carries tea pitchers and goes from guest to guest.

Finally, attention focuses on the two dessert tables. They so full it is hard to choose just one piece of cake or pie. A lady cuts angel food cake and eats a bit of the leftovers from each slice. Others are recommending a certain peach, apple or blueberry pie. There is one server gone from their midst, the little woman that this day is about, but they don't outwardly show their sadness. They turn to joy of friendship and fellowship as a meal is shared.

The funeral goers spilled out onto the lawn where large maples and oaks shade the warm summer afternoon. Picnic tables allowed fellowship and a cool breeze to flow by. The widower farmer shows more comfort here and he is surrounded by sisters, daughters, sons and a swarm of grandchildren.

On the trip back from the cemetery, riding with his two sisters and niece, we drove by the family farm and noted the sweet corn was ready. Later the family picked it and we spent a couple of hours that night in boiling, blanching, cutting and freezing the crop. Some will go back to the farm as they visit in weeks to come and some will go with the relatives who live in distant cities to remind them of the life of Granny Franny.

When will the last of this generation be gone? Will the next have any similarity to their ancestors? We cannot go back to live in our past. Most of us would not do so but to experience this culture, even in decline, creates a memory that can be extended for one more lifetime even if the town cannot.