I recently read an article in The New York Times about the newly formed U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. It got me thinking about the public image of the farmer. The article implies that the local, organic movement has given our conventional farmers a bad reputation. They are cogs in a system of abused federal subsidies, mindlessly pumping too much corn and soy into the US food system. They rape the earth with their fertilizers and chemicals in the name of commerce and productivity. And then their surplus is turned into evil products like high fructose corn syrup, which makes defenseless kids fatter and unhealthier. And let’s not even mention that most of what they grow goes to animal feed and bioenergy – not anything we actually eat! Those heartless bastards.
As the article illustrates, it’s gotten so bad that these conventional farmers now need a PR campaign to save their good name. The very creation of this PR push has been touted as a victory for the critics of conventional farming practices. They are no longer hippie-types clamoring for all organic all the time; they are a voice that’s not going away and so needs to be addressed.
We love to point fingers and blame others. It’s very ingrained in human nature. We are upset and we want to assign a reason (or person) to that feeling. It helps us get away from our own upset by dumping it onto a guilty party. Blaming conventional farmers gives us an enemy to put our frustrations and passions toward. It helps us oversimplify the issue, so it seems fixable. If only those farmers would stop growing corn and go organic, then the problem is solved. I think it’s fair to say that this kind of thinking is shortsighted and ultimately not going to create real solutions. I try to picture a corn farmer, for example, with devil horns and a pitchfork. He’s laughing maniacally and rubbing his hands together as he pollutes and destroys Mother Nature. Or perhaps he is more like Scrooge McDuck swimming in a big vat of gold coins quite content with the massive wealth he has built. No, that doesn’t seem right either. The truth is probably more like an average guy with bills and mouths to feed looking for a way to make enough money to stay afloat. Just a hard working American! Does he have a conscience? Does he care about the effect his farming practices has on the environment? Does it matter?
Who can’t relate to being chained to a job because the fear of no paycheck is worse? I have sympathy for the farmer and his/her situation. However, I am also a believer that people create their own lives through their choices, which means there really is no victimhood. These farmers are not victims of agribusiness. The moment we entertain this notion, we have just disempowered them and given up any hope of changing the system. It comes down to personal responsibility for choices we make based on our values. As a consumer, I choose what I eat and how I spend my money. With my dollars, I am telling the market what I like and what I want more of. As a voter, I can send a message to my leaders that I want outdated policies like the farm bill changed. As an influencer, I can rally support and educate people on the changes that need to be made. These are some of my personal choices. Imagine the people behind the USDA or giant agribusinesses like Monsanto taking responsibility at this level. Some might argue that the sole responsibility of, say, Monsanto is profit. I would challenge at what cost? There are very creative and successful companies making money while doing good to planet Earth and its people. These are the businesses that can lead the way, and the ones I want to support. Only by each cog in the machinery taking responsibility of its role in the system do we have a chance of elevating it as a whole. One part is interdependent on another. It’s like trying to fix heart disease just by operating on the heart!
I have a way of writing more than I planned! I think I could have summarized this best by using the old saying: when you point a finger, there’s always three pointing back at you. You can point the finger and blame conventional farmers, but you must own your culpability in the system, too. What’s more – you can more easily change yourself than trying to change the farmer!