The Democratization of Agriculture


During the years I worked as a farm journalist, I moaned and groaned over the attitude of agricultural communicators toward the public. We were supposed to write exclusively for farmers, which was understandable, but the definition of “farmer” was limited to those who were good customers of big advertisers. Sheep ranchers, for example, could no longer get a subscription to Farm Journal because they didn’t buy enough farm equipment, something even the Wall Street Journal found amusing enough to editorialize about. If the magazine wanted to charge adverstising rates on the basis of a million subscribers, it had to show that those readers were buyers too, not just people interested in farming. So, perhaps for the first and last time in journalistic history, the magazine deleted thousands of subscribers. The readers who remained became a kind of exclusive club. One suggestion, to charge the “non-buying” group of subscribers more, was not deemed feasible.

This policy could and did backfire on farmers. Farm news written by knowledgeable farm journalists rarely made the evening news, so consumers rarely heard the farmer’s side of the story and so might be inclined to accept the half-truths perpetrated by hostile consumer groups as full truths.

I remember one very particular incident that showed what could happen. There was a big meeting of farmers, agribusiness reps and ag scientists in Chicago that I was assigned to cover. One of the highlights of the discussions was a new process that could recycle animal manure back into one of the ingredients in animal feed, perhaps safely and perhaps profitably. There was concern that when consumers found out about this, there would be plenty of backlash. How should agricultural science educate the public about this practice?  One of the higher-ups in the agricultural world (I didn’t know him and have forgotten his name) stood up to the microphone and loudly proclaimed: “Just don’t tell them.” He was applauded.

That was not even in the farmer’s best interest. Hogs and chickens have always eaten the half digested corn out of cow manure and this new way to recycle the stuff might well be worth considering. The public was surely going to find out anyway, so being secretive would only give consumers evidence that agribusiness was up to no good again. That’s how it came to me that one might be able to make a career out of translating the esoteric language of commercial agriculture into words that would convince society that farming was everybody’s business. I can’t say I succeeded as well as I wanted to, but surely a host of other writers have: Wendell Berry, Michael Poulan, Joel Salatin, David Kline, Wes Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Charles and Fred Walters, Bob Rodale, David Orr— oh I could fill this whole blog up with the names of just the ones I know.

The days when farming was a private club are over. We are witnessing the democratization of agriculture. People really are beginning to scrutinize what both private and public figures in the food production world are up to. A good example that I’ve seen lately is in Edible Ohio Valley magazine this summer. (All the Edible magazines, about 40 regional versions from all over the U.S., are excellent examples of the democratization of farming.) This issue has an article titled “Uncle Sam Wants You” in which editor Bryn Mooth  gives details about the 2014 Farm Bill. Here for once is an attempt to explain the shenanigans behind farm politics in terms that every little local farmer, backyard gardener, restaurant chef, and consumer, can grasp. And the article goes on to tell all of them why it is in their best interest to pay attention to the inner workings of commercial agriculture and get involved.

Another example is Alan Guebert’s wide-ranging, syndicated column, “Food and Farm File,” one of the few agricultural news reports that gives politically liberal as well as politically conservative interpretations to what’s going on in farming. It is obvious that he is hitting the mark too because of the unwarranted outrage he occasionally stirs up from members of big farmer clubs around the nation.

Even the Farm Bureau has gotten the message. Once the very citadel of Big Farmerism, at least in the Midwest, it now is advertising itself as the farm organization “for everyone.” It is making all kinds of public relations honey-ups to the local food and farming movement. I should forget the hard time some of its officials gave me over the years for criticizing them for not doing that and rejoice. I’m trying.


Budd E. Shepherd, you knew you’d make me smile ever so broadly and you did. Gene

Gene, I suppose I tend to be a bit negative and so…
Several days later and somewhat off topic… and since you moderate. you don’t have to post this. It is not particularly insightful.
I find people believing what they WANT to believe more and more. It is like they just choose a world view and unabashedly filter everything. For example, (I hope they are not reading this)
I have a friend who went from a traditional commercial farming background to raising chickens. He and his partner were out for a swim in the river that runs though our farm Sunday. The river is amazingly clean. When i was a lad is was green and murky and smelled bad this time of year.
The river is clean because of a number of reasons. One of which is that everyone had put in buffer strips (gubment program), AND the small towns up stream have upgraded their sewage facilities and the weather conditions, and just a general awareness of the need to clean up the river, many small things working together.
But, their first instinct is agricultural pollution…
I suspect that those who set policy currently have two concepts of the ideal farm.
1. People like my friend with his free-range chickens, a not traditional family, a sort of new noble and educated peasant class, with a subaru or an electric car.
2. Huge corporate farms which are more like collectives with clever educated folks which departments for human resources, environmental resources, safety, diversity, and all the work done by happy Mexican Nationals all wearing those funny straw hats, with lots of port-a-poties and Personal Protection Equipment.

Farmers like myself with our mid 1970s through 80’s farm equipment and our grown up fence rows and our tendency to use barter and cash and not always follow the pesticide labels and pick random numbers for our field acreage reports are absolutely not acceptable!

You said it better than I did. My PR is not that good…

Steve Martin, it is always nice to hear positively about one of my books from someone who knows more about the subject (in this case trees) than I do. I haven’t heard of the sapling way to help push a tree over. Sounds risky. We have put a rope or cable up in the tree a bit and kept tension on it in the direction we want the tree to fall with block and tackle. Gene

I guess this is why so many of us call ourselves “homesteaders” instead of “farmers” and why Mother Earth News has become one of the fastest growing journals when others are struggling to stay alive. How many subscriptions can 5 farmers buy?

it’s amazing how so many feel they can’t understand farming, and when you look at all things involved with “big ag,” I understand why. Power to the people and the new immersion into what raising food entails. I love all the urban homesteading going on, it really gives those who may never have the chance to connect with their food, a real hands on experience, which leads to more appreciation for all farming.

Gene, Am currently reading A Sanctuary of Trees and had a couple of comments I wanted to make before I forgot. 1) When you write about cutting trees and that they sometimes don’t fall as you have cut out the wedge, I read somewhere and have subsequently tried, to cut a sapling and place it below a limb or cut a notch in the trunk of the tree you are cutting, bending the sapling so it pushes against the trunk, pushing it in the direction the wedge is aiming it in. You should still take all precautions and pay close attention to what happens, this is just another suggestion to go with the wedges in the cut. 2) In at least 2 places you talk about how trees you planted in certain places didn’t survive even though that specie was growing relatively close by. The difference may have to do with soil pH. Hackberries in particular like alkaline soils. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and others prefer acidic soils and tend to grow where pines are prevalent, such as the Sandhills of North Carolina, where peaches are also very prolific and grown commercially for the fruit. In a job 40 years ago, I learned a lot about soils and the pH and other characteristics of soil can change over a ridge line, adjacent to a stream and seemingly with no reason. I suspect that soil may have an even longer “patience” time span than trees.

Am really enjoying your book and am trying to catch up with your blog. I live on 9 acres in the Piedmont of North Carolina, about 30 miles NE of Charlotte. I carve spoons, bowls etc. Have a spring pole lathe (foot powered) an do demos for school children as well as at historical sites, Old Stone House, Reed Gold Mine, Latta Plantation, etc. I have learned a lot about wood lot management and Sam looking forward to learning even more. Thanks for spreading the word about trees. When I do demos about traditional wood working I point out that much of the wood working done by our forefathers during the early years of our country
was done with green wood. We have lost much of that knowledge but with books like yours we can gradually get back much of the knowledge base needed to make green wood a “normal” part of our lives, at least those of us who choose to live in the woods. Thanks again.

They may be getting more savy to the need for PR, but so far all the major PR pushes I’ve seen have fallen flat on their face.

The problem is they are only interested in preserving the current industrial model. These are defensive actions only. And so they have no reason to actually sit down and talk to the other side or try to understand their point of view. And since they don’t understand it their attempts at PR are pathetic. The kind of things which only appeal to the true believers.

Which may be half the point, trying to keep the farmers in the fold. But that is a loosing battle. In the long run consumers will win; demographics is destiny.

At last. I say amen to that!

I think you’re right the county next to the one I live in sends me their Farm Bureau newsletter its a very conservative county with mostly Republican voters and in their meeting they voted to ask the State Farm Bureau political wing to stop supporting Pro GMO things in the General Assembly.

Tennessee attempted an Ag-Gag bill which was partially supported by the Tennessee Walking Horse trainers to keep undercover cameras out of their stables after ABC News showed the abuse of horses. Missouri is going to vote on a Freedom To Farm law which is trying to stem the tide of people wanting to know where their food comes from and how it is treated while still alive. It is all futile. The first question always is: “What are you trying to hide?” I predict in the not-too-distant future, drones will provide an overview of ag operations to consumer and advocacy groups. It will be pretty hard to shotgun them all out of the sky.

On the contrary..
In the old days farming was really big exclusive club and didn’t really need anyone else. Now that it is getting to be to the point where there are only five big farmers in every state and one of those farmers has a kid who studied Political Science in college, they are getting public relations savvy.
The big guys have discovered the phrase, “perception is reality.”
And those of us hanging on the fringes with our 1960’s tractors and dogeared copies “Holy Shit” are never featured in press releases. (not that I’m complaining)
Just saying…

I was in a county meeting of Farm Bureau several years ago where we were voting to make it illegal to photograph a farm sans permission even from a road. I was the only one to object stating ” let us be clear here, this is anti-constitutional and we will eventually be made out to be jerks, besides what are we ashamed of?” No one talked or even looked at me after that comment! At the cocktail hour they turned away. Folks with a public turned on to where their food comes from this is expected and the way I see it, admirable. We are open and transparent!

The internet has helped to level the playing field. It’s so much harder to keep ” secrets” now. And thankfully you and several other writers are out there letting folks know what’s going on in ag and other areas also.
And totally unrelated, I can’t wait to see you at Jandy’s Garlic Festival on the 17th. I hope a lot of your blog readers will stop by.

The Big FB is really busy here in Iowa reaching out to the consumer and showing the caring side of CAFO’s, GMO’s etc. The metropolitan newspapers now have several weekly columns from local commercial farmers explaining an the going on’s…My rejoice is that the buy local, farmers markets and people now questioning what is in their food has actually created this reaction by Big Ag and it’s massive lobby effort. I guess this goes to show we as consumers can make a difference by voting with out dollars at the counter!!!

I hope this trend continues. It was learning about how our food was produced that got us interested in growing our own, and that in turn got us interested in farming (in fact your own The Contrary Farmer in particular, wedged in among the gardening books at the library), and now here we are. We went from total greenhorns to managing a small dairy in two years. Steep learning curve, very overwhelming at times, but worth every drop of blood sweat and tears shed thus far. Thanks Mr. Logsdon!

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