On how hard we work and what we expect from others?
It’s a foregone conclusion amongst food and ag writers that there is something wrong with the way we grow food in America. Paging through the best-selling volumes by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Dan Barber, and others will lead you to one conclusion; there’s a better way to farm out there, and they’ve found it.
After you close the book/put down your NYTimes, you’re inevitably left to wonder, if these journalists and chefs found these solutions, farmers must be willfully ignoring them. Sure, these authors tell the farmers’ sad tale about the inheritance of industrial agriculture and the industries and policies that entrench it. But, we wonder, if farmers were smart enough, hard-working enough, and truly the environmentalists they claim to be, they should be putting away their John Deere tractors and their Monsanto seeds en masse to plant heirloom tomatoes alongside their grass-fed beef.
But what if we lived in a world where everyone, or maybe even most people, aren’t the smartest, most hardworking, and most ethical at their job? What if we live in a world of (duh duh DUN) real people?
First off, do farmers tend to be smart, innovative, scientifically-minded individuals with incredible work ethics, a uniquely confident humility, and a passion for their job that only comes with carrying on a family legacy? Yes.
But, it turns out, farmers are also people. People like us. People who like spending time with their families, watching the game on Sunday, seeing (or artfully avoiding) their kid’s school play, grabbing a beer or a cup of coffee with friends, or reading the newspaper. You know, living.
The average American farmer works more than 10 hours a day (much if it physically demanding), 6–7 days a week. Even for us workaholic types, that’s an impressive amount of hours for a group that’s on average 57 years old. Is it still so shocking that farmers aren’t spending their rare free hours reading books and articles about farming by journalists and chefs and vetting the solutions they present?
What’s more, population loss in middle America has increased tremendously over the past several decades. More than 6,000 communities have completely vanished over recent decades, and farmers are struggling just to keep their neighbors. A lot of farmers have very close, personal relationships with their chemical, seed, and equipment dealers, not to mention that a high percentage of rural businesses are involved directly in agricultural production (read: traditional agriculture).
When the population of your town has more than halved (on average) over your lifetime, and you are told that if you stop doing business with your friends (potentially putting them out of business/causing them to move away) and spend countless hours researching, testing, and applying alternative agricultural methods, you might be able to sell your corn, wheat, or vegetables for a higher price, I might say thanks but no thanks to that myself.
This is where farmers are. We need to put ourselves in their shoes. Remember that not only are you experiencing all of this, you also have (on average) $90,000 in existing loans, and you are going to take on all the risk of this transition personally. Even if you are expecting a 20% increase in revenue on selling organic/sustainable/biodynamic/grass-fed products, how long will it take you to get the certifications (7 years for organic)? How much will it cost you in terms of sales and marketing?
Think about it this way.
You’re an enterprising individual. If you thought you had come across an idea that could change the way you do business (and maybe the world), you’d be willing to put in a lot of effort to get it off the ground. It might cost you a few friends, a few good times, but it would be worth it. Who knows, you might be the next Bill Gates. You might even be bigger, because you’re idea has a social bent- save the environment, feed the world. Maybe if this works out, you could retire by 40.
But what if all the money was yours? What if there was never going to be a VC to pitch to or a grant to apply for? What if you were starting this when you were 57 with kids and grandkids? What if failure meant losing everything your family had built for decades, maybe centuries? What if your idea put your friends out of business? What if the best case scenario is that you’ll still be a faceless farmer from middle America, but maybe somewhere on the coast someone gets a warm feeling after spending $9 on a loaf of bread or bottle of juice? What if you’ve already spent your life working incredibly hard and all you’ve seen for it is criticism from chefs, journalists, and the media at large? Does this still sound like a project you’d start or an idea you’d bring to your boss?
We’ve got to change the way we talk about the American Food System.
Reducing farmers and agribusiness to stooges and villains is a good way to sell books and documentaries, but it’s no part of a meaningful solution. If we want farmers to take our goals around ecology and sustainability seriously, we have to stop believing that they’re either holy or evil; they’re people, people who are more than their jobs.
It’s time to marshall our technology to find solutions that respect that farmers are people like us.