Friday, March 6, 2009

Perpetual ferment hasn’t been bubbling much lately so I thought I’d write about my experience yesterday at an agricultural society luncheon talk. The speaker was the publisher of an agricultural trade publication, and his talk focused on bringing the brand online. It was basically an introduction to new media publishing, which was a new topic for the society membership, most of whom were men over the age of 50. Not much to report on the talk. For me, the really interesting thing about the event was the pre-talk discussion at my table: a spirited dog-pile on the slow food movement. Last month’s speaker had been a slow food advocate, and the guys at my table were still savoring their contempt for what he said and how he said it. One observed, “People tell me they respect agriculture. They don’t respect agriculture, they just like food.” They traded anecdotes about urban naïveté toward the flyover states. One mentioned a businesswoman who looked at the endless tracts of corn in Iowa and asked, incredulously, “Who is going to eat all this corn???” “Did she think it was sweet corn?” “YES!” The table rocked with genuine laughter. Apparently the slow food speaker had been savaged in the Q and A, and the men at my table revisited the best bits: “Where are you going to get all these farmers? You’d need ten million people willing to farm! Nobody wants to farm! It’s dirty. It’s unrealistic, it’s unscalable, it’s unsustainable, and it’s never going to work.” All agreed that the best Q and A zinger had been: “Have YOU ever farmed?” Unfortunately the speaker’s answer had been “no.” As my lunch companions piled on, I realized I was watching the ritual behavior of a tribe working hard to contain a threat. These were businessmen, expert in running large operations, deeply invested in industrial methods and products. These were Friends of Monsanto.

It’s not often I am physically surrounded by real live people whose views on a topic are opposite to my own habits of thought. These men weren’t total aliens to me: my maternal grandfather ran an enormous wheat operation in Nebraska, then my mother and her brother took it over for a while. I was familiar with the conservative culture of the Midwestern industrial farmer. I’d seen the producer’s exasperation with bureaucracy, the service industry, and consumer culture. My uncle, who would have turned 80 today, was working more than 1200 acres when he died; he was also a rock-ribbed Republican. My paternal grandfather, what we might call a traditional agrarian farmer, worked forty acres where I grew up, and after he died my father farmed weekends in a manner too serious to be considered a hobby but not serious enough to be a career. I’ve done a share of farmwork, for pocket money, or just for the exercise: I’ve picked tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupes, and corn. I’ve plowed, planted seedlings, turned vines, and stapled crates. But I’ve never really farmed, not like my relatives did. The men at my table were right -- farming for survival is hard, you get filthy, and at certain times of the year you have to work 18-hour days. And you run the risk of hail.

My lunch companions were certainly not dirty; they were wearing suits and talking about the stock market. At that table, they were captains of industry. Some had doctorates in agricultural science; others bred racehorses or published on bovine genetics. The day’s speaker, sitting to my left, was the CEO of a multi-media firm but he took care to establish his bona fides by mentioning his Christmas tree farm. During his presentation he cited a rising star in ag media named John Phipps. I googled Phipps, expecting to find the Sean Hannity of agribusiness, but was pleasantly surprised at his evenhanded tone (yet unsurprised at his faith in the Invisible Hand). Some of his comments on organic farming clarified what I’d witnessed yesterday. In a blog entry on industrial agriculture’s hostility to what he calls the agrarian movement, Phipps describes the market for organics, free-range eggs, and local produce, then observes,

Industrial producers like myself have been trying to write off these developments as consumer fads, but I think they are woven into the cultural shifts made possible by abundance and the differences in values of Boomers and succeeding generations. We also have struggles with a larger issue: agrarians are boldly snatching our outdated "family farm" image which we flog in the halls of Congress to attract subsidy support.The growing divide between agrarian and industrial producers no longer alarms me. In fact, heated opposition to the agrarian movement is the last thing industrial ag should be spending time on. The market is sorting this one out as we speak.

Overall, Phipps calls for a frank self-evaluation of industrial agribusiness: the work is a massive tech-intensive, scalable operation capable of high caloric yields, and the agriculturalist is a CEO and entrepreneur as well as a hands-on manager who joins the workers on the factory floor. According to Phipps, Big Ag needs to be honest with itself about what it does and who it is. In casting off romantic images of the farmer, it doesn’t hurt that Captains of Industry are fewer and farther between in our post-industrial economy, and the role is there for the taking. Agribusiness finds itself in a uniquely protected niche as the financial markets plunge: some pundits are saying the safest investments are gold and farmland. Stop worrying about the small farmers, says Phipps – trust in the market.

Though he regards the agrarian farmers with some benevolence, Phipps dishes out a spot of contempt for the agrarian consumers. Pointing out that the biggest producers of organic foods are corporations like Kraft and Coca-Cola, he argues that earthy-crunchy types see corporate ownership as a betrayal of “organic” values:

Despite complying with the rules, many food advocates are outraged at large operations providing products they imagined would come from smaller and frankly, quainter farms.The rise in the local food movement underscores this disappointment. My own feeling is it's not really about the food characteristics - it's about the desire for an attractive and pleasantly rustic rural population to grace modern life at the convenience of non-farmers.

The jabs at the slow foodies suggest a cultural divide not at the level of the market, but at the level of social reality. Like the businesswomen flying over Iowa, he thinks localvores nurture a Fisher-Price image of the traditional family farm and fail to grasp the scope of what is really necessary feed the nation and the world. They link farming with tourism. In a sense, I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson snarling “you can’t handle the truth!” At the same time, I wonder whether the highly educated and prosperous businessmen at my table still might smart a little at the image of the picturesque rube. Yet they saw the utility of invoking that image when lobbying for subsidies and tax breaks. Listening to my lunch companions slag slow food, I knew the object of their scorn was not small farmers, though they worked at transcending whatever stereotype they saw in that role, when convenient. Their real target was the urban elite who styled themselves slow food experts – who do a little gardening, read Michael Pollan, visit Lancaster County, and feel obliged to write letters to Congress or the New York Times about fixing the food system – in other words, members of MY tribe.

Today I ran into a friend who makes her living in the local food movement; I briefly described my experience and she told me the cultural divide between industrial and agrarian farmers is actually beginning to give way. I’ve run out of blogging time and I don’t have any big conclusions. Oh, and the lunch wasn't very good. The vanilla mousse tasted like fish.