image

My last notes on the Focus on Farming conference are not on a particular class, but on the subject of divisiveness. I notice a lot of it at every one of these conferences. The  conference seems to draw two very distinct groups of people. There are traditional farmers and ranchers, many of them from multi-generation farming families. And, there are new-age people who are really into organic agriculture, along with their city-folk kin who dabble in AG topics, such as urban gardens. Get those two groups in a room, and there is bound to be tension.

The choice of speakers, I assume, is intended to spark debate and fuel conversation about the future of farming. The speakers are never just benign here’s-the-latest-incremental-news-on-farming kind of people. Especially the keynote speakers, they tend to be people on the forefront of agricultural news, good or bad.

Last year it was chef Graham Kerr, and I don’t know, he said some possibly annoying things, such as promoting cutting way back on animal proteins and fats, going more vegetarian. Not something that would have thrilled about 50% of the audience there who raise animal products for a living. AnnoyedAnd certainly not aligned with anyone who is a fan of the “upside-down food pyramid” and authors such as Dr. Atkins or Dr. Weston A. Price.

Last year also had the lawyer guy who sues agricultural operations for foodborne illness, whether they deserve it or not. Depressing.

This year, it was chef Ann Cooper. Granted, she has done some amazing work with school cafeteria menus, and we can all agree those corndog-and-tater-tot menus have gotta go. She is  dynamic speaker and has a lot of good things to say. But she is also  fiery woman, she has a lot of opinions about agriculture, she showed a lot of stereotypical negative images of farming, and she ruffled a few feathers.

She is generally right. We shouldn’t feed our kids crap in schools. And the extreme factory farm model does suck. But both are also currently how we affordably feed Poor America, and Most of America; so we have a big dilemma to solve, and it’s not a trivial problem. It’s a delicate balance between animal welfare and human welfare; and so far, we haven’t figured out how to achieve both at the same time, all the time.

And I can see it: the wedge that is driven between us. We all farm in some way or another. But due to market pressures and competition, we bad-mouth the other guy in our marketing to make our product look best. I do it too, everyone does it, that’s the free market system.

People who confine their animals claim, our animals are in a cozy barn, protected from the cruel elements, comfortable in clean bedding, fed the perfect diet, the ultimate in luxury! Yay!

People who pasture say the opposite: our animals are out in nature, free to roam and exercise, fed on fresh grass, not trapped in barns or standing on concrete, living natural lives. Hallelujah!

Organic people say, no antibiotics and drugs used ever, rejoice! Conventional people say, I medicate my animals when they are sick out of concern for their welfare, sing praise!

The raw milk people declare, pasteurization destroys the milk! The traditional dairy farmers proclaim, pasteurization keeps consumers safe!

Conventional row croppers tout the latest GMO and herbicide/pesticide technology that increases yields and promises to end hunger. Others want to hearken back to the days of the horse and plow.

There was tension even between the speakers. Earlier in the day, there were speakers who make  a living on a hydroponics farm, and do some really heartwarming work with military veterans. Later, Ann Cooper basically said, hydroponics are unnatural and make bland food. The former speaker stood up and politely challenged her, well you haven’t tried our basil then! Awkward.

Lincoln said, A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Can the American public have any confidence in farming at all, if all the farmers are constantly fighting and putting each other down? It makes me wonder where things are headed. At times, there is a call for unity amongst all AG people: we need to band together, to stand our ground against extreme environmentalists and animal rights’ activists. But the line gets blurred when some of the extreme environmentalists are also farmers, and it turns out that the conventional people sometimes care more about animal welfare than the naturalists. I definitely run into farmers where I think, I can’t abide by how your running your farm. And I’m sure there are those who think the same of me. There is definitely a cultural revolution happening, and you can really see it at an AG conference. I always leave wondering, are “we” really “we?” Or is the whole group about ready to devolve into a Lord of the Flies mentality, with one trying to destroy the other?

Advertisements