Gene Logsdon and Friends

Culture Wars Between Farmers

In Gene Logsdon Blog on December 10, 2009 at 8:59 pm

From GENE LOGSDON

We are all well aware of the no-man’s land of cultural difference between farmers and non-farmers. Visualize on the one hand a high rise apartment dweller in Manhattan burning more carbon than any human ever did before in history just to maintain his luxurious lifestyle while fretting about the evils of global warming. Hold that picture while, on the other hand, visualizing the farmer out in his barn on a frigid December morning shivering and quivering while losing money on every pint of milk he produces and wishing that global warming would hurry up and get here.

But there is another cultural divide coming to the fore in our society, this one between farmer and farmer. The best current example of this phenomenon is the flare up of opposition to Michael Pollan’s books criticizing industrial grain farms and animal factories. Agribusiness has suddenly realized it can no longer just ignore the opposition. A large scale corn and soybean farmer, Blake Hurst, went online with something he called the “Omnivore’s Delusion” to blast Pollan’s “Ominivore’s Dillema.” The crap really hit the fan. Industrial farm supporters and pastoral farm supporters went at each other on the Internet like a couple of tomcats, the former labeled sneeringly as factory food producers and the latter called, even more sneeringly, “agri-intellectuals.” Fast farming vs. fake farming.

I am on Michael Pollan’s side, more or less, but I also sympathize with industrial grain farmers. I’ve been there too. The debate has become so bitter because neither side has lived in the culture of the other except for a few misfits like myself. The new farmers most critical of industrial farming are almost total strangers to the facts of life of the farmers they criticize. I bet even money that if asked what he thinks the LDP will be on corn this fall, Michael Pollan would barely know what to say. Nor would he know anything much about the Direct and Counter Cyclical Program, or what a typical farm payment per acre might be under that program. Or if maybe if one were enrolled in the optional Average Crop Revenue Election program instead, what that would mean. Or what does he think about the CCC no longer requiring the execution of a storage agreement in storage facilities that are either federally-licensed or in compliance with applicable state laws. Or about the new vibrating shank cultivator which in some ways just might render obsolete all earlier arguments pro or con about soil cultivation. These matters are of huge and immediate importance to corn and soybean farmers who know that their survival depends on how well they can stay informed about them. They are every day sweating over their computers pursuing these matters, because, as one of them just told me, only by spending at least two hours every morning keeping up with world-wide market news can he hope to stay in business, no matter how many acres he farms. And then along comes these strange people (strange to him) blaming him because people are getting fat from eating the food he produces. As one editor of a farm magazine exclaimed in an editorial recently: “Where are these people coming from???” Perhaps another planet?

The pastoral farmers and garden farmers who support the Pollan point of view do in a way come from another planet. They at least see this planet under quite a different light. If a rotational grazier would ask an industrial corn farmer how to estimate DM intake per acre, the corn grower would not know what DM stands for, let alone how to estimate it. He most likely would not be able to define “rotational grazier” either. Nor could he fathom a kind of farming where perennial pastures could substitute for almost all the corn grown today. Or a planet where his vast corn fields would be supplanted by gardens. These are concepts just as inconceivable to him as it would be for a fervent Christian or Muslim to imagine that his idea of paradise just might be incorrect.

What farming needs today is not more scientific study but more cultural understanding.
~
Painting “Two Farmers” by Carroll Cloar
~~

  1. Well done! “A voice crying in the wilderness.” I always appreciate the efforts of de-demonization. Unfortunately the world seems to have a disproportionately high number of talkers and too few listeners. Thanks for doing both well.

  2. Yes or drastically reduced availability of fossil fuels.
    Id say that this isn’t even a “them or us” problem; it could turn out that both ways of doing things are actually not practical in light of reduced high-density fuels. We really need to take a town or city or country and purposefully shut off the oil taps, drop a flag and say “GO”. Watch as the cards fall where they may. Then we may have an idea of what the future holds and where to focus. Unlike comparing religions, this problem exists in the real world where physics, biology and climate matter; ‘concepts’ must be tested to be proven correct.

  3. What everything needs today is more cultural understanding. We seem to be living in a divide-and-conquire world. We need to find common ground in as many relationships as possible or we’re all screwed.

  4. Thank you very much for writing about this divide. It’s so easy for me to criticize industrial farming practices that the farmers end up being demonized or just disappearing from my mind. I think Paul Roberts’ book The End of Food does a good job of reporting on the weaknesses and harms of industrial farming without disparaging the farmers and owners. The book also examines the shortfalls of assuming that small and local farming is the ultimate answer to how we can feed ourselves.

    I think a possible common ground is the uncertainty of earning a living as a farmer at all, particularly if you are not farming at an enormous scale. Everyone is working hard; no one is skating along. Also, it’s likely that everyone is coming from at least one shared good intention: to provide for their families and communities.

    Here’s an interesting post from the blog La Vida Locavore on a panel discussion at the University of Wisconsin including Michael Pollan and several industrial farmers. Jill Richardson, who runs the blog, is definitely blames industrial systems for many wrongs, but she reports at length how respectfully and fairly Pollan interacted with the panelists (who, she says, were looking for a fight themselves). It looks like an example of cultural understanding that eventually went both ways.

    http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/2534/the-palinbiden-debate-reenacted

  5. Thanks for straddling the divide. I’ve tried to outline the universal challenges that both Pollan and Hurst are dealing with in my blog post copied below, and unfortunately like many other things, their misunderstanding seems to be a consequence of a failed economic system.

    —–

    Culture Wars Between Farmers: Missing the Elephant

    The following is an article written by Gene Logsdon, Ohio farmer and blogger over at The Contrary Farmer. While most of the young professional generation (myself included) have thankfully been engaged in learning more about where our food comes from in record numbers, we have also almost unilaterally fawned over the likes of the Michael Pollan’s of the World without hearing much of the other side of the story.

    The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals, a piece written by a Missouri farmer named Blake Hurst to offset Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, offers a refreshing take on the demanding process of farming often overlooked by most authors and readers of the current food movement, while unfortunately drawing something of a line in the sand.

    Logsdon’s mediating viewpoints sit between Hurst’s and Pollan’s and like both of them he too explores the challenges of providing a quality bounty for an ever-increasing population of non-farmers. Still, all three seem to be trying to cope with the elephant in the room without directly speaking of it: that biophysical realities impose limits on how much food can be produced and in what manner, and continuing to have unlimited growth in demand will require increasingly technological (read: industrial) solutions for meeting such demand.

    In short, a society that is hooked by-design on perpetual economic growth will not be able to reach the quality demanded by Pollan unless a systemic redefining of value occurs; and secondly, the quantity demanded by the system for Hurst to provide will increasingly require technological, industrial solutions to increase productivity, with potentially catastrophic consequences. There will be no solution to the quality/quantity balance unless we examine the overarching system’s inherent flaw in its value structure that makes endless economic growth a prerequisite.

    Most unfortunately, the lack of discussion about the lopsidedness of our value system increases the probability for misunderstanding between two parties who are ultimately trying to do good in an area where it counts most – how we feed ourselves.

  6. So perhaps the key to all of this is to sit down together in the postion of “ignorance” as Wendell Berry calls it, recognizing that while there are some key indicators out there about the health of our soils, our water and our people, none of us have final answers. For without an honest, thoughtful and respectful dialogue, both sides will ultimately come to grief.

  7. I think you need to define the meaning of some of the acronyms such as LDP and DM that were used. Also crop revenue election and such other terms should be explained. Make the article a little longer for the truly ignorant masses.

  8. I have lived on an “industrial” farm. I don’t agree with the method, but at the time it put food on our table and a roof over our head. Since then I have learned a lot, listened, read, and formed my own opinions about the situation and it doesn’t matter how you slice and dice it, it’s going to be a long road to coming to terms with our agriculture system, the cultural bias’ that urban dwellers have of their fellow countrymen/women who live the rural live and try to provide for themselves, and what I call sensitive yuppie agriculture. I think, (or hope) that it will eventually happen but it will be a painful birthing process. Hopefully some common ground will be reached before the yuppies find a new fashionable cause to embrace.

    • Sadly, i am afraid our “coming to terms” with our system is going to become more than a debate. Our current standard of living, consuming any type of calory we can afford, will decline. As a retired farmer living in a sparsely populated western state our family is preparing to have to produce most of our own food, rather than just what we eat and preserve from our garden and pasture. It is as difficult to do, as it is easy to pluck some neatly packaged iten off the rack in the store. But it is coming. My surprise has been my growing anathema to the meat products raised industrially. It is not easy to butcher animals you’ve raised and cared for, for your own sustenance, but at least i could thank the animal and say my prayer for the sacrifice. What is coming is not going to be easy, so the rhetoric ought to become more civil and neighborly. We will need to help one another, on our own local level, and offer some models to those livning in the cities, totally unprepared for what they will face. Thank you for your thoughts, as one with a farming past.

  9. Thanks, Gene, for another thought-provoking piece.

    Like Steve, I think we all know “industrial agriculture” cannot continue. But we need a bridge and a common vocabulary with large-scale farmers to help them understand what’s coming straight at them in not too many years.

    Having read many of Michael Pollen’s books, I don’t think he’s been particularly polarizing, and I think he’s taken pains to examine multiple facets of agriculture.

    Although I haven’t read The Omnivore’s Delusion yet, I suspect it is much more polarizing that Pollen’s works, and I think I know why: the conventional, energy-intensive farmer can clearly see the writing on the wall, and is running scared. They’ve seen their fertilizer and diesel costs skyrocket. They know why, even while blaming energy companies, politicians, environmentalists, and everyone else in sight.

    The first stage of grief is denial, and with denial comes attacking the messengers of the message that is too scary to accept. We need to help them grieve an end of a way of life that isn’t stuck in denial.

    So we’ve got to build bridges to these folks. We’ve got to come up with suggestions on how a farmer can transition a 1,000 acre grain mine into something that will still feed people as petroleum goes away.

  10. We’ve got our work cut out for us. This cultural disconnect is a tough one. If there is civilization around in twenty years, there’s going to have to be a whole lot of people out working the land with hoes and rakes and shovels. This idea that work is bad and someone else is supposed to do it is a problem. It’s like taxes are bad and someone else should pay them. Maybe we can do the work thing like we’ve done the tax thing and let the kids do it. We’ve shoveled all this debt off on babies that aren’t even born yet. Maybe they can do the hoeing too. Sunshine is the only income we’ve got.

  11. To all of the above: I am so edified and impressed by all of you and your perspicacity (how’s that for a show-off word this morning). All I can say is AMEN. Yes, Eddy, I should spell out those acronyms. I did not simply to underline the fact that many of us who want to talk on the subject of farmers know little about their realities. Believe me, all industrial grain growers know what LDP stands for and all rotational graziers know what DM stands for. The funny part is that even after you know what they stand for, the concepts behind them are murky even for the most practiced of farmers. Gene

  12. Thanks for this, Gene. Good reading, as usual.

    I would like to jump in here and say, though, in the spirit of teamwork and cultural understanding:

    Outside of the farmer vs. farmer debate, you do tend to demonize “high rise apartment dweller in Manhattan burning more carbon than any human ever did before in history just to maintain his luxurious lifestyle while fretting about the evils of global warming.”

    It is well established in planning circles that with the (usual) exception of rural and farming America, true urban dwellers have the lowest per household energy use, and the lowest per household vehicle miles traveled (VMT); and therefore the lowest per household (and per capita) pollutant and transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions of any development pattern.

    They also happen to live on the least amount of infrastructure per household, and have the lowest water consumption numbers of any development pattern. Benefits that should not be overlooked.

    I only bring this up because your comment is an oft-repeated misconception that has to do mainly with data-presentation errors (too often made by our governmental and institutional bodies) that don’t emphasize total vs. per capita or per household differences. It is a problem of concentration, and the misconception is often the context for a long and drawn-out argument; time which could probably be better spent learning about LDPs, DMs and the like.

    As an urbanite from a rural family, I would love to see urban and rural people unite under this flag which represents their common respect for the environment, and exercise the realism you use in your posts to really solve the problems we face (agricultural, and more).

    p.s. And, toward your literary goals and effect: if you must use one, a scapegoat that embodies the characterization of waste that you are looking for is the low density suburban American mindset and the development pattern it drives. I would love if rural and urban America could come to agreement on this problem too (a pact to set the wild sibling straight, perhaps.)

  13. Remember, the laws of physics don’t give a rip about who is in the White House or the Congress. Industrial farming is on the downhill slope because of the double whammy of decreasing oil for both diesel and fertilizer production. If you are not planning on a transition to postmodern agriculture (low-carbon, high labor inputs), you are behind the curve. Back when I was a migrant laborer, I used to say, “You can’t beat a man with a ladder.” Allow me to add, “Soon, you won’t be able to beat a man who is willing to get on his knees and weed carrots.”

  14. I think Walter has hit the nail on the head of one of many facets of this discussion. That is, in our country people who make a living doing manual labor (that includes people who work in the Trades; carpenters, electricians, plumbers,etc.)are looked down upon as being a lower class of person than a person that has been highly educated from a university. I am always amazed when people pay to have something done that would have taken them no time at all to do their selves. I remember reading once that one of the signs that a civilization is on the decline, is when no one in that civilization knows how fix any thing and they pay others to do any kind of manual labor, if that’s true, we’re in trouble.

  15. I haven’t read “The Omnivore’s Delusion,” but I have read Pollan, and I’m afraid Gene doesn’t do him justice. Nor does he note the number of outspoken “conventional” grain farmers who’ve stood up and said that the system is rotten. Pollan spends a lot of time in The Omnivore’s Dilemma with one such farmer, who represents both sides of the question. The wonderful video, Food, Inc., does so, as well. If there’s demonizing out there, it’s certainly a mistake. What we need to do is come up with solutions that can keep afloat those farmers stuck in the rut of commodity production as currently defined as we/they transition to a more sustainable system. “Understanding” and cultural sensitivity, I’m afraid, aren’t enough. What we need are concrete programs and a lot of dedicated people. Any candidates?

  16. Here are some hard numbers and a sustainable model. In 2008, I produced 2.24 million calories on 1 acre with an input of 1.14 million calories for tiller gas and human labor (I don’t have a tractor). This was enough food to supply 2.43 humans at .91 million calories per year. (BTW, following the usual nutritional protocol my use of calories = kilocalories.)

    In 2009, I produced 3.66 million calories with an input of 1.07 million calories. This is enough to supply 4.01 humans AND I have not finished threshing all my spelt and barley (storage in the barn until convenient time for threshing is often overlooked in the literature and even in archaeology of earlier farming).

    My target is to get up to 5.0 humans fed by my labor and a little bit of tiller gas. This fits in with my postcarbon vision that we will have to have 20% of working adults as full-time farmers. This is a concrete program for sustainable ag in the transition times we are already facing. I blog on this a lot on my Local Harvest blog. If you wish, you can go to http://www.localharvest.org and then to the blog menu. I am always on the right-hand side. Click on F.A. Farm.

  17. Michael Foley writes, “What we need are concrete programs and a lot of dedicated people. Any candidates?”

    That’s what we’re trying to do. As Gene once wrote, “It’s the most funnest thing I ever did do.”

    Anyone want to come have fun with us? :-)

  18. Thank you Mr. Logsdon for this and your many other words, I’m a big fan and future farmers are something I think about often.

    I see this just as you intimated, a clash of beliefs. Most people believe in the same God as their parents and most farmers believe in the same basic methods as their fathers. Of course technology and economies have changed over time and todays producers use as much “new” as their beliefs allow. But just like any profession (maybe more) farmers hate to be the butt of the joke down at the doughnut shop and are cautious by nature.

    On the other hand are the people who have never looked to a cloudless sky for rain enough to keep the bank and taxman away but by virtue of reading a book have discovered the secret to unlimited food without effort or environmental impact.

    I’m kind of a mutt myself, my childhood was spent on a little ranch but I worked most of my life in “business”. Only at 45 or so did we sell out and move to a little farm in SW MO to escape the impending real estate crash and ponder a way forward with less energy.

    So, finally, our niche is kind of a mongrel between conventional and new farming too. We raise bottle calves acquired from the local (industrial) dairies and background them on grass with as little antibiotics as possible, we grow a small market garden – it’s not organic (there isn’t much use around here) but we try to be as “natural” as we can, we sell some eggs from rangy hens (who probably eat more spilled calf feed than any 10 Tyson chickens), do an odd job here and there for Real Farmers and get by while improving our skills and land.

    My point with all of this is there is a farm somewhere in the middle. I don’t know how much food we produce but it is obviously more than we eat because we have some to sell. I do know we don’t use a heck of a lot of inputs because I have precious few write offs at year end!

    So forget the arguments, get some land, make a plan and work it!

  19. Mike Black, Yep, all the way. There are more and more Mike Blacks out there and let us hope that continues. Gene Logsdon

  20. I suspect a lot of critics of the Omnivore’s Dilemma have only read the first part of the book and then put it down. The second part forgets the first part and focuses on the ways he judges to be better.

    This past year, I’ve become a lot more aware of the “Farmer’s Dilemma.” They just don’t get paid enough for what they do. Although I like to complain, I did do something positive. I purchased shares in 2 different CSA’s. One is a startup and an almost complete failure. But hopefully, they will learn and improve next year. The other has been around for awhile and I’m getting more than my money’s worth even though I’m paying a premium price for the vegetables. The second is a bit contrary like you seem to be. That’s a good thing. The failing one is more into the accepted way of doing things although they aren’t using any chemicals.

    My concerns about corporate farming did not start with reading a book. They came from seeing the people at Wal-Mart getting more and more waisted. I decided not everyone is lacking self-control, so I started buying differently.

    At the same time, I started becoming more aware of salaries and the effect my desire for cheap food was having on those who made it. So, I started intentionally paying more. First moving to Kroger’s, then Vitamin Cottage, and now directly from the farmer. I found my costs went down as I was more careful about waste.

    I’d love to see the corporate farmer be able to farm 5% of their acreage and make more profit. We are really on the same side. Getting there will take a gradual change so as to not be painful to them. A system that gives the farmer only 8% or so of what the store gets just isn’t fair and I have stopped participating.

    I also planted a garden this year. Since May, most of what we have eaten comes from the garden. I buy my tools and seeds from small local businesses. I may pay more, but at least I don’t give money to those making excessive salaries at the corporate headquarters.

    Gene, I wish I could have a few minutes inside you head. Or a week working quietly beside you.

    Oh, and along the way, I went from a size 38 inch waist to size 32 and I lost about 20 pounds.

  21. Gerson, being inside my head might bring you visions of nightmares. But I sure hear you. I did precisely what you are doing just today. I paid a part time farmer more for the meat he sold me than he asked for. And I am far from being rich. I just know, from doing the same kind of work he is doing, that he doesn’t make enough for his quality meat. Thanks for your comment. You sound too wise to want to get inside my wayward head. Gene Logsdon

  22. Gene,

    I’m honored to get a reply from you. If you weren’t crazy, I wouldn’t want to be in your head. I’m a little contrary myself. If I found the conventional contrary way of doing things, I might choose to do something else.

    I was just reading your section on bogs in “The Contrary Farmer.” Our home town in New Jersey used to have a bog. The area was known for cranberries in the 40’s. First they decided to put a football field there. It was alway muddy. Then they decided they needed a new high school next to the football field. They seemed surprised when the building settled a lot. That was in the 60’s.

    Still, I have this wet area in my garden at the top of the hill I keep trying to plant. Maybe I should put a miniature high school there.

    I’m more an ignorant gardener. Meaning I ignore everyone else. People told me I couldn’t use green compost. I did. I built a 3 foot pile in a bin made from 10 feet of hog fence. After it settled, I put 6 inches of dirt on it. People told me it would stink. It did for a few days, then it dried out. Now, I have beautiful peppers growing there. For some reason, I haven’t had to water them in a month now. Even though I’m in a high plains desert climate. People criticize me for not putting compost in the garden. Why should I when I’m busy putting the garden on compost?

    They told me I couldn’t collect enough composting material for my planned 85 compost bins. So, I find a place near the road – put out my “Cutting for tips” sign and cut away in a section that’s higher than the road so chemicals don’t drain to it. I make a few nickels (loved that story) and they never realize I’m stealing fertility from the land. But they come out ahead, too. Areas that used to be invasive weeds are turning green and nice looking. People seem to like the sterile look. I hope they don’t cover it rocks they get from raping the mountains.

    I love vegetables for their honesty. They either grow or they don’t. If they don’t, I don’t plant them there anymore.

    I’ve learned I’m growing soil. I hardly look at the plants except when picking vegetables every day to eat. I’ve learned what different soils smell like, and plant according to the smell. Neutral smells get beans or peas. Sweet smells get other stuff. Onions and potatoes go in areas that smell a little sour. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference, but how else would I choose?

    I’ve heard the soil can be tested by taste, too. But my daughter won’t taste it for me. Even though we don’t use manure.

    Instead of manure, I pretend my compost bins are ruminant stomachs. If the effluent out the bottom looks a lot like manure, I’m happy. I call them my goats. They aren’t big enough to be cows. (I don’t even know what kind of stomach a goat has, but that’s not my problem. It’s the goats.)

    People tell me to mulch. (You mentioned that.) I scuffle hoe the garden every morning except after a rain. Enough organic matter blows in to keep the soil in good shape. Except for that wet spot. I really can’t understand why it’s wet there. Weeds wouldn’t dare grow in my garden. They would be chopped up within 24 hours. The soil looks absolutely dry. But if I dig down a couple inches, it’s always moist. The plants seem to like it.

    I’ve learned to love planting in a straight line. I mark every seed with a popsicle stick so I don’t scuffle there. Michael Pollan gave me the idea we are being manipulated by the plants. So, I let myself be manipulated. If vegetables wanted to grow in wild conditions like nature, they would. Ok, so I’m going a little far by numbering the popsicle sticks. But that’s mostly to make people think I’m a little daft so they leave me alone.

    People tell me to think big. But I only plant 9 sq. feet at a time. I just do it a bunch of times. It’s easier to think small over and over. Then it keeps getting bigger the longer I think small. And who needs power tools for 9 sq. feet?

    Lots of people don’t listen to me anymore, so I don’t tell them.

  23. Gershon – I really enjoyed your post, particularly the benefit of thinking small over and over. A former colleague who was full of pithy sayings used to often remind her students that a steady trickle fills a bucket. I’d say you’ve gained a bucket full of wisdom ( and humor ). And thank you Gene for your gift of provoking interesting thoughts from interesting people.

  24. Russ, the fact that people like you, and Gershon, and so many others of gentle humor and wisdom comment on my blogs has been the most pleasant and illuminating experience of my life. Bless all of you. Gene

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