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Who's against Big Farming, and why?

 foodrenegadeIowa farmer Bob Muchmore, 70 years old in April 2008 and still uninterested in breaking his farming habit, thought he'd found a natural solution to the 33 percent to 100 percent jump in fertilizer prices the average U.S. farmer faced that year. He'd do as the city farmers tell them to do. He'd add a little manure to the rotation. So Muchmore and wife Dianne sunk a half million dollars into planning, permitting, platting and preparing a new hog unit. The morning of April 16, 2008, they awoke to find someone had expressed displeasure with their management decision by funneling a few pounds of Iowa sand into the crankcases of the earthmovers preparing to dig the new pits.

Says Tim Rasmussen, owner of the equipment, damaged to the tune of $30,000: "There's never been any proof, no one has ever been charged with a crime, no one was even officially questioned, but I've been doing this for 36 years and this is the first time anything like this has happened. This wasn't a random act of vandalism. My machinery was moved in late afternoon, and the next morning, it was damaged. Someone didn't want a hog building to be built."


Moral equivalent of war?

12-by-12-spacer 'If industrial agriculture is, let us pretend, an aggressively armed Persian nation, the PollanNation is France'

OK, I am willing to concede that--at its center--the movement to keep the agricultural world safe for leaving oil in the ground, nitrogen in root nodules and antibiotics in the $4 Wal-Mart prescription bin is non-violent, peace-loving, subtle, multi-faceted, nuanced and non-hegemonic. If industrial agriculture is, let us pretend, an aggressively armed Persian nation, then the PollanNation is France. I get it.

But then again, (like Democrats who conveniently ignore the one in three members of their party who believe George Bush conspired to bring down the World Trade Center) a food movement that so studiously finds ways to deny the existence of its fringes' bitter Smithfield vitriol, wild-eyed Cargill paranoia and shrill Monsantophobia can't help but lead the rational observer to logically conclude nobody on the center of the Food Left had the patience to actually sit through all 94 painful minutes of Food Inc.

timeThis we know: Ignorance isn't monopolized by large, corporate agriculture. There's plenty of it to go around. Neither community food organizers, blogging foodies nor academics appear immune from parroting agenda-driven faux statistics (70 Percent of All Antibiotics are used to Promote Animal Growth!) sky-is-falling, Wild-Assed-Guess policy research (Every Other Black Child Will Become Diabetic!), and gleefully depressing soundbite-ism (Suicide the Leading Cause of Farmer Death!). A centrist patina hasn't hidden otherwise apparently reasonable people inflating their rhetoric into fencerow-to-fencerow hyperbole. For example:


  • Today's fight to convert the food world to an all-natural one is another "moral equivalent of war," says Kelly Cain, director of St. Croix's Institute for Sustainable Community Development. It's an all-out battle against a common threat to economic stability, quality of life, personal freedom, self-sufficiency, ingenuity, self-determination, personal responsibility, civic pride, a nationalized sense of purpose and patriotism.
  • In the breathless "world of alternative truth-related documentaries" populating the Internet, the World According to Monsanto is somehow interconnected with Government Conspiracies, Mind Control, Secret Societies, Destructive Corporatism, 9/11, Unreported Health Issues, and Covert Military Operations.
  • Joining the revolutionary struggle against the agribusiness monopoly, says Christopher Bedford, micro-farm advocate and director of Michigan's Center for Economic Security, threatens to bring corporate legal teams, zealous government regulators, and swat teams down on ma and pa raw-milk marketers.
  • Writes University of Missouri ag economist John Ikerd, "Sustainable agriculture and industrial agriculture are diametrically and irreconcilably opposed. There is no common ground on which to compromise."
Click here to read reasons one through five: From science to eco-feminism


The mystery is why those on the left can immediately connect the hate-speech dots between Glenn Beck quoting Thomas Paine and census workers being hanged in rural Kentucky, yet can't see that when advocates like Ikerd do likewise for long enough and loudly enough, it's suddenly bound to dawn on somebody in west Iowa that potshooting 5,000-gallon CAFO propane tanks in the middle of the night with a deer rifle passes for reasonable expression of political discontent.

There is a schism between those who think today's food system is broken or dying or unsustainable or murderous, and those who think that even though there are always ways to make it better, the system is doing its job at least better than any other of the conceivable, practical alternatives.

What, then, lies at the heart of all this (shall we politely say?) antipathy toward modern agriculture and agribusiness?


6SIX: They hate you because you refuse to accept your limitations.

"Our nation's industrial agricultural system is based on a series of false assumptions about our relationship to nature," writes Michigan's Bedford. Globalized agribusiness is on its way to a fatal crash, bringing society along for the ride, Bedford believes, because proponents take it on faith that man can control, standardize and ultimately tame Nature through technological dominion. The Manifest Destiny that drives you every season to wring another 2.5 bushels per acre out of that quarter section is the same broad-shouldered, Breadbasket-to-the-World arrogance that brought down the Antebellum Cotton South, the 19th Century potato-based Irish economy and, this year, the US tomato crop threatened with devastation by early blight infected mass-produced tomato plantings (well, not so much, it turns out.)

Learn to live with(out) it. The new age food ethic is heavy on the politics of material denial as the means to cultural enlightenment.

Nowadays, the new farm aesthetic has become the farm ascetic, according to those like Bedford. Bin-busting, fencerow-to-fencerow American farmers, too John R. Bolton-esque in their antipathy for the United Nations' advice they throttle back their exported productivity in order to leave room for sustenance farming in the third world, exemplifies haughty American pride going before a great fall. The only redemption from such deaf self-assuredness is to turn back from the energy- and capital-dependent "cornucopian-ism" that leads American agriculture to falsely believe it can have it all--meat five nights a week and an eventual end to global famine. As Missouri's Ikerd argues, refusal to buy into eco-pessimism that believes otherwise is a self-induced false comfort, a grand delusion that makes tolerable the natural riskiness, uncertainty and moral ambiguity of a life entirely at the mercy of nature.

It's a refusal for a farming man to know his limitations, manifested in not just the way industrialized farmers act, says longtime small-farming advocate Wes Jackson. It's inherent in the way they think, as well: You simply think you're too damned smart, according to the collection of essays in Jackson and fellow editor Bill Vitek's new The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge. Modern infatuation with knowledge, Jackson writes, underlies the "Western love of progress and the scientific control of nature." We must rethink it, he believes, and "consider the possibility that, despite its flashy achievements, the knowledge-based worldview has not delivered what it promised and is getting more dangerous to practice." What we need is a good humbling in our conviction that the power of the human mind, focused by science, can solve any problems that same mind creates, global hunger included.

When, instead, the typical annual farm show calls farmers together to admire their own unabashedly pro-industrial, pro-mechanized, pro-American exceptionalism without confessing any particular need for agonizing reappraisals, well, you can see where that might become an irritant.


7SEVEN: They hate you because you're draining the color from their Rockwell.

Bob Taylor's freshman ag econ class at Purdue many years ago included a then-new computer modeling exercise designed to teach farm youth to allocate the resources of a mock farm toward the most profitable mix of crops. Before I maxed out my inputs (which of course--How last century!--was one of his points of the exercise), I was feeding, on paper, somewhere north of 100,000 feeder pigs. When I boasted of that in class, the big, seed-corn-capped, not-so-impressed farm boy behind me not so quietly inquired of his seatmate: "Who the hell knows a real farmer who raises 100,000 feeder pigs?"

greenacres1Many in today's local, sustainable food movement are quick to protest they don't hate the farmer, anymore than they hate puppies. If you're a farmer, nobody's against you. Unless, that is, you're a farmer who is either too absentee, too technology driven, too Monsanto-friendly, too Exxon-dependent, confining too many hogs (like Iowa's Muchmore), too profit-oriented, or just too big. Darling of the "real-farmer" movement Michael Pollan, as he reassured a Wisconsin crowd of farmers who turned out in September to both boo and cheer him, isn't against farmers. Neither is he against doctors in the health-care debate. In both cases, he's just against the system.

And you're baby's not ugly ma'am, you're just a victim of bad photography.

Farmers remain a cherished institution in this country's imagination, one still trusted by a majority of consumers and provided wide latitude by politicians. The fight going on now is over who gets claim to the title. "Everybody who has history in agriculture wants farming to look like a Norman Rockwell painting," says Iowa swine veterinarian Daryl Olsen. "I think that's how we all long to see it."

You can say you don't hate farmers by pledging love for picket fences, silos, '30s farmhouses and green grass, but if you profess hatred of Smithfield, the fact is you hate at least somebody who farms. (Or, vastly worse in the minds of the farmers I know and love, you hate them less than you pity them for being useful fools or indentured slaves.) Everybody is fighting for farmers today. On that we all agree. And we all want world peace, too. The tougher question is exactly who you're championing, making it possible for 10 different people to hate the other nine around them for all being "anti-farmer."

It's a confusion over the question of authenticity that extends beyond the farmer to the fruits of that farmer's labor. Tomatoes shipped from another country and ripened en route aren't really tomatoes anymore, Pollan says in the introduction to the anti-industrial agriculture movie Food Inc. "Although it looks like a tomato, it's kind of a 'notional' tomato. It's [only] the idea of a tomato."

And unlike the plain-old, run-of-the-mill grocery store milk, according to Boston computer network specialist Christopher Shustak, whose quest to live a diet of sustainable, natural, real food was profiled in a 2002 Boston Globe, fresh, raw, farmer-direct milk is "almost like a fine wine. You taste it and you taste complexity'"

It goes without saying that jaunting 85 miles into the country every two weeks for a milk run, having your cheddar overnighted to you and making an annual 1,000 mile spring pilgrimage to pick up fresh peaches, as Shustak does, affects the experience you get in eating that food. No doubt the ultimate reality TV show experience of loading the kids and the dog in the Landrover to pick up flowers and whole chickens at the farmer's market on Saturday somehow makes that "real" apple or piece of cheese or chunk of lamb taste so much more yummy that the difference becomes tangible. But the question is: Is the converse true? Does, as Pollan argues, the process of growing food faster, cheaper and more efficiently disqualify it as the product of real farms? Make it only Faux Food?

The quest for authentic food from authentic farmers mirrors a wider need which cultural historians have identified to find roots in a rootless society. Since the 1970s, both academics and the affluent, suburban culture they tend to spring from have taken a wider interest in taste, craft, health, status and authenticity, observes food historian Warren Belasco, an authority on how '60s radicals tried to change the food system. From The Waltons to Joel Salatan, Annie Dillard to Michael Pollan, the hunger to rediscover Wendell Berry's "connections between eating and the land" has driven a new generation to distraction looking for validation in their food decisions. It extends to the nostalgic romance for the family meal, which "scientific studies" reassure us will produce kids who won't smoke pot or break windows. It's part of today's wider "authenticity chic" as Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan calls it, an abandonment of the phoniness characterized by junk bonds and derivatives, Botoxed and collagened aging society women, empty and identical McMansions, and dogs that spend three days a week in the hair boutique.

It all seems, to borrow a line from poet of the pastoral Berry, as if America has become a place growing lonesome for other times. Get in the way of that mass nostalgia, and it's bound to garner ill will.


8EIGHT: They hate you because you freed their proletariat, and they want it back right now.

"For millennia," Belasco writes, "food has meant unrelenting drudgery, not just for cooks, but also for all food workers--farmers, field laborers, butchers, grocers, clerks, servers, and so on." Standing amid today's supermarket cornucopia of "too many food choices" (as some advocates voice their longing for a simpler system that wasn't just so darned confusing in its array of offerings), it's easy for us to forget one of the aims of the early 20th century liberal Progressive ancestors of today's Food Left. Their goal was to make the food system not less efficient, as often becomes the practical goal today, but to make it more efficient. The Progressive aim was to, in effect, he says, "disappear it" and its never-ending hunger for labor, capital and the kind of day-upon-day demand in human toil that literally wore out producers like my grandmother.

Spent-on-food1aThat's all good news, save for one problem: The aim was accomplished not by the public service, shared sacrifice, intellectual guidance and omnipotent hand of government that exemplified the ideal social model of the '60s left. The world was fed better, faster and cheaper by the selfish, messy, profit-driven capitalism of John Deere, McDonald's, Continental Grains, and Kraft Foods. The average American blue-collar laborer has been freed more thoroughly by a food system that allows him to devote over 90 percent of his income to something other than feeding his family than all the anti-globalization marches that voice support for a localized food system. In that sense, the conflict going on between the free-market economies of American agriculture and the planned economies of the local community food security movement is an old, old fight reconfigured.

"Our most potent political weapon is food," writes Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. "If we take back our agriculture, if we buy and raise produce locally, we can begin to break the grip of corporations that control a food system as fragile, unsafe and destined for collapse as our financial system. If we continue to allow corporations to determine what we eat, as well as how food is harvested and distributed, then we will become captive to rising prices and shortages and increasingly dependent on cheap, mass-produced food'."

It may be a stretch to use the S word, but there's no secret, as one observer rightly notes, that the foodist movement gave the economic left in this country a place to hide from the unchecked capitalism of the last two decades. It's no accident the only serious consideration of Marxian philosophy of enlisting all in common toil in the soil finds itself sharing university office space with the same departments that study "food justice," "eco-feminism," and "livable futures;" no more than it's accident the founder of Italy's "Slow Food Movement" is an avowed anti-corporate socialist.

"The corporation is the ultimate "economic man"--it is motivated always and only by its own short-run, self-interest," writes Missouri's Ikerd. "The corporation has no heart, it has no soul -- it is driven only by an insatiable need for profit and growth. The managers and workers in corporations may be good people, but they have no choice but to serve the corporation. The enemy is not the people but the industrial corporation."


9reagan_cowboyNINE. They hate you because Ronald Reagan loved you...and vice versa.


Current Washington administration notwithstanding, a March Pew Research Center survey found seven in 10 Americans still believe they're better off in a free market economy, despite its severe ups and downs. A Rasmussen poll showed only 13 percent of those over 40 chose socialism over capitalism as the preferred system. Yet despite the apparent lingering popularity of the free market, the language of the anti-industrial agriculture debate today is heavy with the language of anti-capitalism. On campuses and in blogs, small-food advocates begin at the assumption that capitalism is a failed system, urging we all adjust our expectations to a new reality so we can move ahead. To those of us with long memories, it's all reminiscent of another era of lowered thermostats and lowered ambitions--one followed spectacularly by a man who enjoyed unprecedented popularity among farmers and farm business, big and small: Ronald Reagan.

The economic engine that fed the world since the end of WWII is legendary in the success of capitalism in growing the pie for everybody, not of planned rationalization splitting up a shrinking pie more "fairly." Modern agri-intellectuals hate conspicuously productive agriculture because it stubbornly insists on clinging to the essence that made it the poster child for the free-market, free-individual, risk-taking, reward-claiming, knows-no-boundaries spirit that was everything cowboy Reaganism stood for.

bigtexanIn contrast, today's newly envisioned food system is the ultimate Obama-esque apologetic, embarrassed by a nation too willing to elevate its own vision of feeding the world over another's. Blue State intellectual progressives cluck over a reprise of the Carter era assurances we will be out of oil in a decade and fret about the kid-fattening effects of flyover cuisine while sipping Charbay Blood Orange vodka and sampling bee bim bahp from traveling fusion restaurants in che authentique retrofitted Airstream trailers.

Meanwhile, that shrillness you hear--so reminiscent of the same you heard on Dec. 12, 2000--is the echo off of the impenetrable walls of no significant meaningful Heartland discontent about the food of monster truck rallies, Nebraska football, NASCAR, Free 72 oz. Steak Challenges and other phood philistinism that bears the marks of Reaganism and its Red State heirs.



10TEN They hate you because they are utterly, absolutely, desperately dependent upon you.

If you can see for what it is their brave whistling past the graveyard about how mail-ordering packets of baby carrot seeds to American school children and enlisting the homeless of Detroit City to take up hoes and rakes and lift from the ashes of its economic ruins a new urban-gardening utopia, it's easy to recognize even the most ardent small-farming advocates know there's no way to meet 21st century food demands using 20th century farming. They inherently recognize it when they demand we learn to A.) eat less, B.) eat less extravagantly, or C.) subsidize farm inefficiency more.


Every day, they beg, demand and cajole consumers to vote them control of the system with their dollars. And to their horror, the fully functioning free-market industrialized food system remains in charge of what gets grown where and when. Three times a day--at least--your fruitful success stands as reminder they are almost completely out of control of their food, and completely dependent upon you to provide it, safely, abundantly and well. And since the 1960s, no modern liberal worth their Birkenstocks has been willing to admit they should not and cannot control every choice they make, from the science they choose to believe to the god they worship. It scares the hell out of them. And as we've been often reminded by liberals, phobia usually disguises itself in the mask of hatred.

Maryland's Belasco again: "As the world seems to spin helplessly from one major political crisis to another, large segments of the public look for ways to assert some control over their lives--and watching what you eat may be one such way to feel in charge of your destiny."


+6 # Rex Peterson 2011-01-16 05:55
In my opinion,you have overlooked the most important one. It is the elephant in the room. At one time 90% of the population farmed, now 2%. They hate you because if you are still farming, somehow you cheated.
They won't talk about how their 160 acres could not support 4 horses, a milk cow and still have 40 acres for this years wheat and 40 for next and if you sold anypart of the overgrazed system, you were selling out because it wouldn't work.
Meanwhile the neighbor who was a little better capitalized or in a better position to share, was able to not overgraze the system...and we blame the dust bowl on the plow when the pastures were blowing too.
+2 # Frisham 2011-11-18 15:35
The arguments of those who cry against the farmer, the industrialized agriculture, and capitalism in general, are ridiculous. Many of them fail to understand the real (practically basic) principles of economics. Many wish for some romanticized version of agriculture where on farms for himself along with his regular duties and responsibilities or for some local market. Yet, it begs the question, do they understand the idea of economies of scale? The reason we have been lucky to see such low food prices globally is due to the idea of economies of scale and industrial capacity in general. Sure, maybe there is a valid argument for "safer" food by their proposal. However, "those in need" that they often argue for as well, won't even be able to eat hardly a crumb. These people that make these comments seemingly come from well-off backgrounds that can't fathom what is must be like to be on the other side.
+2 # Brian 2011-12-07 23:42
Well said! I took that same class and did that same project for Bob Taylor in my day as well, although memory doesn't serve what results I came up with.

"The world was fed better, faster and cheaper by the selfish, messy, profit-driven capitalism of John Deere, McDonald's, Continental Grains, and Kraft Foods."

One of the strong opinions I hold on to is that greedy opportunistic capitalists will benefit society whether they want to or not. I relate this to my farm with inputs for seed, pesticides, fuel, and fertilizer. Exactly as I learned from Bob Taylor no less. If I do some tissue tests and find nitrogen wasn't limiting yields for me, then I spent too much money on N and I could do with less. Finding the optimal rate of return on my inputs is great for my wallet, and in turn just so happens to be good for the envirnment as well.
-1 # Laurella Desborough 2013-07-16 18:54
My only problem with this article, because I do support the work of farmers, (having been raised and worked on a farm myself and thus have a pretty good understanding of the work), is connecting the "problem people" with liberals. IMO this is not a liberal versus conservative issue, it is far more likely a religion versus science issue. Why do I say this? Because those who follow SOME of the more fundamentalist religions are also those who are more adamantly against science in all its forms. Educated open-minded people can be found among liberals and among conservatives. Being able to reason seems to be the key to understanding complex issues which are not part of one's everyday experience...most people are not farmers.
0 # Steve Kopperud 2015-01-27 18:48
While I agree with about 99% of what Mike Smith writes, I'm guessing a part of that literary hug is that he writes it so damn well...I tell ya, Mike, there's a book in there somewhere...well done.

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