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.