The News Is Blind To Farming



Staying with relatives recently, I spied a big coffee table book on a shelf titled Britain On Country Roads published in 1991. I love pictures of farming landscapes, especially in the British Isles, so I paged through the book. There were gobs of photos of seashores, village streets, old castles, quiet roads, crossroads taverns, flowery hillsides, quiet forests and glistening rivers, but not in a hundred pictures or so was there a hint of farming activity. Whoever chose these pictures turned a blind eye to what makes the countryside along those country roads so lovely and alive, economically as well as socially. It was assumed, evidently, that tourists would not be interested in farmers working in the fields, livestock out on pasture, or barns burgeoning with hay.

I keep thinking that with the rise of interest in local food, this blind eye in journalism for farming will soon end. But try to recall if in all the news flowing out of the turbulent Middle East in the last few years, if you have seen any scenes of farm activity.  Just recently there was a one sentence reference to the food situation in Yemen, pointing out as a quick aside that 90% of the food is imported— not one word of how significantly this fact impacts what is going on there. Anthropology and cultural history, if not economics, teaches that a big part of the problem when war and genocide are rampant is population outrunning food, or more accurately, population outrunning farm land upon which to grow food. So why doesn’t the daily news address this?

Rarely, for example, do we see news stories on the huge amounts of money that Saudi Arabia has spent digging deep wells for farm irrigation (and they still keep running dry) so they can grow more grain. Or the shiploads of manure the Saudis have imported from Europe for the same reason. Saudi Arabia can afford to do this, maybe, but how much of this attention to food production is the reason why, so far, this country has been fairly stable compared to so many around it that do not have money to import enough agriculture to keep up with population.

Usually, when the landscapes of any of these countries in the chokehold of genocide is shown in photos, about all you see are rocks and sand and a few withering, stunted bushes and trees. The viewing farmer immediately deduces that it is no wonder these people are killing each other. They are starving to death. But then the scene shifts to cityscapes and not far from bombed buildings there are street side market stands loaded with fresh food. Why aren’t we shown what must be verdant fields and gardens where this food is coming from? Why doesn’t just one reporter point out with words or pictures, a Muslim smiling while she buys fresh food at a Christian market stand, or vice versa? Why are there not more thoughtful discussions about how farming instability leads to political and  religious instability? Why not more instruction over how much of the savagery in places like Iraq and Libya is caused by food shortages or land shortages to grow food on. It seems to me that we might bring peace to these regions faster if we were exporting farm equipment and birth control education, not bombs.

I might be overly influenced by what I learned years ago studying northern Africa. There is much archeological evidence amid the ruins of ancient north African  cities in the deserts showing a very vital and abundant agriculture. For years it was believed that desertification brought an end to the agricultural plenty but now it is generally agreed that the collapse came from overpopulation and war that destroyed the delicate and skillful management that had turned desert landscapes into productive fields, plus Rome importing food to maintain its own cheap food policy. Very intricate systems to catch and store water in the rainy seasons were very susceptible to the instability caused by raiding tribes looking for land to feed their burgeoning numbers. It took the skill of a stable agrarian society with years of experience to make that work. Carthage was the last gasp of that long story.

I am fairly sure something similar is going on in the Middle East. If the news gatherers would show us farm fields and what is happening on them as often as they show us destroyed cities and deserts full of wrecked war machines, we might learn more about the real problems. Why are world leaders so eager to talk about genocide but not about the kind of population pressures that cause it?


Lorenzo Levi Brown May 6, 2015 at 11:42 am

It is little understood that the mess in syria started after a 5 year drought farmers began to move to the cities to eat. They petitioned assyad for help and got none. From this lack of reply the outcomes have been the conflict confusion we have now.

If you are not aware of how much farmland china is buying in africa, you need to check it out.
Also do you know how metric tons of soybeans ship from brazil and how little notice is given in the commodity markets to the breadbasket of the former USSR. Hint: aka Ukraine…

I alway wonder when I see photo’s of third world local’s a) where the kid’s get clean clothes
b) where are the gardens and pastures for the livestock? Ask your self the question? Why the FSA photos of the dustbowl show america’s farmers in rags, yet the photo of those in poverty today, everyone seems to have clean, net clothes with no mending….

Great article, im reminded of william cattons overshoot book and “carrying capacity” I think he said a sustainable, (yes able to sustain), population was back in 1880. Anything over that is just out on a limb.

timely thoughts as i just returned from a month in israel, including a week in jordan. all along the northern jordan river the fields and groves are green, but there is a tension, as the jordan river no longer contributes any water to the dead sea, whose level is dropping 1m per year.

jordan was beautiful, but barren. the Bedouin herders work very hard cultivating small plots of wheat, and fields for their flocks. more so than i expected, since my impression was they roam and rely on wild forage. with all the archeological things to see, i did find myself wandering the farms and fields much more to appreciate the different agriCulture from my own.

it isn’t just an army that travels on its stomach, but all of society. again, great thoughts… thanks!

curt, Dave Smith, who runs this blog is the genius who finds these pictures. Yes, you are looking at a crude adaptation of a centuries old way of saving rainfall in dry countries. We don’t know what is growing here. The Israelis have made great progress in this kind of farming and there’s plenty of info available. They are doing a lot of it in parts of our southwest too, as the Indians there did centuries ago.
ocdinstructor: Yes, land reform is a big part of all this. Gene

Stephen where abouts in east central indiana? I have some relatives in east central indiana named Martin. One of whom lost both arms in a hay baler accident .The only one I got to meet was Maxine Martin my grandfathers first cousin who lived in Lynn.IN. Hers was the only house on her street that was not damaged by the tornado that went thru several years ago.She also knew Jim Jones when he was a boy

Gene, I too like photos of the British countryside (Irish and Scottish, too) but I have a really nice book to recommend to you. It’s mostly New England country scenes (not all farming scenes) and weather, etc. Called Pictures From the Country by Richard W. Brown, copyright 1991. I love to look through this book when things get crazy living in town!

Here’s a link at Amazon for the book:

Look it over. Has some beautiful stuff in it, really.

Dan, I really appreciate your attention and interest. You are welcome to quote this or other earlier blogs on the same subject. I doubt I’m the right person to discuss specific problems in the countries of the Middle East since I have not been there. I have a whole chapter devoted to this issue in a new book I recently submitted to my publisher, Chelsea Green. The folks there have not decided whether they will accept it or not or with what content, but I’m sure that if they do, they will be as delighted as I will be, if you used some of it in your magazine. Shay Totten is the guy in promotion you would probably want to talk to. The problem here is that discussing the connection between farming and genocide always devolves into a shouting match about population control. Yours being a faith based publication, I am sure that will happen if you have the courage to pursue the issue. It appears that the human race is not ever going to agree to any kind of population control. It is not in our genes. The majority of people in any group, intellectual, religious, business, economic, political or whatever want more people. Politicians want more voters, churches want more members, writers want more readers, sports want more fans, stores want more customers, farmers want more consumers etc. Gene

Hi James. Here is a link to our online publication:
It’s always free because we believe the content is worth of sharing far and wide. You’ll notice it’s a faith-based approach to agriculture. Not everyone will tolerate that, but it’s our position. I’m happy to visit with you at your convenience.

Dan Grubbs,
Stewardculture Magazine

Thanks Gene. You made me think about how I perceive what is happening. My Daddy was raised on a dairy farm in east-central Indiana. Water was vital to their existence as it is to ours. In North Carolina, most of the rivers begin in North Carolina, not like those states fed by the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers. Yet out politicians continue to play roulette with our ground water with fresh water threats from coal ash ponds, fracking and nuclear waste disposal. Please continue to spread the word.

Also, it is, then, farming which makes Saudi Arabia rich. Not oil. It is just not recognized. Yet. We (as a society) value all the wrong things.

And when I read this what I immediately see is that the Western bias/Christian religious bias is that there should ALWAYS be unrest in the middle east because the Bible says so, so that’s what we in the West see. You make such great points.

I’ve noticed that “country side” photos never show any mud. I’ve been on a lot of farms in my life and everyone has had mud…just not as photographic as cute little animals.

Its not just the Mideast its here too,people in NYC think the country revolves around them, they set pace for everyone else and all the rest of us rely on them.When in reality people in the country wouldn’t miss a beat of NYC were gone tomorrow but NYC depends 99% on what the people in the country send in to them.Country people really hold the power.

I am curious about the plcture.It looks like those beds may be designed to capture runoff from the road or the hill.. And what are they growing?

Your observation about ‘country side’ pictures with no one working the farms and fields is very true. When you travel through areas with large, industrial ag farms, it is rare to see anyone outside except in planting or harvesting times, and even then the people are not in sight, but sitting in the cabs of their machines.
We did see a lively farm landscape on Monday when we picked up chicks in Polk, OH. The fields were being plowed by Amish and their horses, gardens were being planted by the women and children, and the clothes lines of drying laundry were blowing in the breeze. It was a sight full of life and the promise of spring.

As a fellow farmer and one who was positively influenced by your books I appreciate the main point of the article. I do take issue with your solution of exporting “birth control education”. Really? As if people are the problem? The greatest wealth of any land is an industrious, educated populace. Witness the Japanese resurgence after WWII, no natural resources to speak of, no mineral wealth, just hard working, disciplined, tenacious people.
Oh, the problem is “too many” people? Than which ones will you eliminate? What if the next birth you prevent is the one that could have helped turn things around, developed a new farming technique, soil building effort, processing machinery, etc. the one that could have reached his/her people with the wisdom and courage to choose a more sustainable path?
Re-read that history again, the problem was not too many people then, any more than it is now. The problem is and has always been governments that destroy the very lifeblood of a land and who’s policies encourage or demand the very practices that destroy the land. Look at the USSR and the starvation that marked the Communist regime. Look at Red China during the reign of Mao and the millions that he starved and on and on. Look at the good ol’ USA today and who has legislated the “agricultural cleansing” of the last 70 years by “sending forth swarms of officers to harass our people and to eat out their substance.” In each and every case, government is the problem.

not politically correct to write about population control

The media, like the military, is a tool of the powerful to control a government’s power–both over its own people and over other nations. Unless a tool like the media is controlled by a disinterested, self-funded third party, its public communications will always be slanted to benefit the power which controls it. (So say Clausewitz and many other strategic thinkers.) I do not believe we will never get real, true information out of media controlled either by the government or by media magnates–which, by the way, is the reason so many dictatorial or totalitarian regimes clamp down hard on independent blogs and Twitter accounts. The information is probably out there. It’s just not being collected where most of us look for “news.” But what a fascinating sort of story would be told by a centralized place to post photos of farmers and their farms!

WOW Dan that sounds exciting and much needed. How do we get a copy or subscription or contribute articles?

That is all the more reason for those of us contrarians out on the front lines of dirt, manure and water to lead by example. Meaning to first of all continue in our sustainable (hopefully) food production practices, then secondly to try and remember or, as a last resort, write down, what works and doesn’t work in regard to food production.

Eventually the news media folks will either by chance or on purpose because they are themselves starving try to realize what they”ve been missing in their reporting and in their own lifestyles. When they finally recognize that food doesn’t originate in stores MAYBE they will experience multiple epiphanies. We can only hope.

Hi Gene,
As you mention Yemen, it happens to be an outstanding case of mismanagement of resources and of population growth. I’m quoting from memory, so my numbers may be not exactly right, but some years ago I read an article about Yemen’s diminishing water supply, which lead me to look up some facts.
In the 1950s Yemen had a population of only 5 million; around 2010 it had grown to 17 million, expected to reach 22 million in 2020. Already, water is in short supply, very short indeed, but most of it isn’t used for growing food, but “wasted” (more than 80 pct.) on growing qat, a popular softdrug that is exported to N-Africa and the Middle East to earn money to buy…, you guessed it, food, weapons and iPhones.
As qat production is so important a part of Yemen’s economy and apparently owned by the leaders of the dominant tribe, any well-meaning westerner or NGO that tries to turn this thing around is met by stiff resistance. No final solution in sight, I guess, until the water runs out, eventually, and the qat fields have withered away along with the greater part of the Yemenis.

Gene, I’m currently reading How Asia Works by Joe Studwell I would highly recommend it to you. He cites three pillars upon which thriving societies depend and the first one of these is a land reform structure that supports and sustains agriculture. The opposite of this is termed “urban bias” which ignores or marginalizes the concerns of farmers. Here in the US, we have a high regard for farming in general, but it seems Big Ag gets more press than the small family farm, despite our romantic attachment to it.

Studwell quotes Michael Lipton’s “Towards a Theory of Land Reform” which says:
“There is now abundant evidence that ‘output per unit of land is inversely related to farm size.’ He provides a long list of academic studies to support this assertion, covering east and south Asia and Africa. Interestingly, even a World Bank study of South Africa stated that ‘the literature contains no single example of economies of scale arising for farm sizes exceeding what one family with a medium tractor could comfortably manage.'”

Thought you might find that interesting.

Gene, as editor of Stewardculture Magazine, I offer you space to express exactly what you’re discussing above. I would welcome any submission from you to discuss any of the ideas you touched on. We’re not Acres USA, but were are just getting started and our third issue will come out in May. I have been wanting to run something on the the topic of the relationship of food insecurity to violence and civil unrest. I believe when one develops a graph of the bread/food shortages in the Middle East, you’ll find a surprising upward trend in civil unrest and violence … something the media loved to call the Arab Spring. Would this be something you’d be interested in?

Thank you for taking the time and effort to think and write about an underlying problem instead of just focusing on symptoms, Gene.

Farming is only one of the issues to which media is blind or about which they tell outright lies. Let’s try peak oil, medication side effects, the damage done by pesticides and herbicides, the very high potential for a severe economic crash, widespread police brutality and the reasons behind it, educational issues and many other problems investigative journalism could uncover if it were not being damped, smothered or otherwise derailed by special interests that now influence or control the upper levels of media ( All we can do is look for our information from a variety of sources and remember to trust our instincts.
One thing I find very interesting is the assumption that farming is easy — just toss some seeds at the ground and add water — bingo — instant food. It’s a subtle form of discriminatory thought processes (even a monkey can do it, so farmers don’t have to be real bright, you know). I pretty much just ignore the media and go on about my business…

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