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February 22, 2014 | About WhatFarmingIs.com
For Contributors: Moving Past What Farming Isn't
It's frustrating to see bad information about agriculture, but the main purpose of this website isn't to directly challenge people who promote prejudice and alarm. It's to start fresh, and show consumers who farmers are.
February 22, 2014 | About WhatFarmingIs.com
For Contributors: Moving Past What Farming Isn't
It's frustrating to see bad information about agriculture, but the main purpose of this website isn't to directly challenge people who promote prejudice and alarm. It's to start fresh, and show consumers who farmers are.

When I first contemplated a project like this, I pictured one giant evidence-based takedown of all the people who savage most of agriculture. Had I decided on that route, this website would instead be called What Farming Isn't, but believe me, I understand how upsetting misinformation can be.

At the height of my moral crusade, I went so far as to code a program to download every article by New York Times food and agriculture opinion writer, Mark Bittman, and count the use of words like “researcher” and “farmer,” just to show that he doesn’t generally seek a balanced perspective before writing with expert-level arrogance.

More broadly, I did it because I despise his simple answers, and I think he should go back to writing cookbooks until he’s willing to spend more time with manure on his boots. I wanted to declare to the world that someone who repeatedly demonstrates an inability to learn should not be given a platform like the Times to teach.

In hindsight, I don't recall this being part of any coherent plan. I was just angry, and somehow thought I could shame Bittman, and then move on to writers everywhere across the internet who disparage farmers without talking to them. Before long, this Whac-A-Mole mindset became exhausting, and I realized just how distracting it was. 

Today, I liken it to forest fire management policies of the 20th century (bear with me), where for a long time, we leapt to to fight seasonal burns, while unbeknownst to us, leaving them be was part of the essence of forest ecology. Decades of intervention allowed dry debris to accumulate, ultimately fueling some of the most destructive burns ever seen. Our obsession with beating fire helped fire beat the forest.

In other words, disinformation isn't going away, and shouting back at it distracts energy from much needed proactive strategies for fixing the deficiency in the public understanding of agriculture. There aren't many large orchestrated efforts to give consumers an untempered view of what farming is, and until that changes, disinformation will become increasingly powerful.

Mocked For Profit: Disinformation Isn't Going Away

Agricultural illiteracy arguably stems first from the reality that most consumers are socially disconnected from farmers, but public perceptions are actively polarized by imagery from organic and other iterations of "not conventional," which tend to bank heavily on fear. 

(I don't think the organic farmers I've met would disparage the rest of agriculture the way that advertisers frequently do. In my eyes, this is far more an issue of marketing-morality, which I can't broadly hold farmers responsible for.)

Companies that identify as "not-conventional" often encourage the ideas that they are categorically safer, morally superior, and ecologically harmonious solutions to the rest of agriculture. For any this messaging to be compelling, the rest of agriculture must be seen as reckless and devoid of compassion. 

Advertising and advocacy do a brilliant job of pushing consumers toward a conclusion that conventional agriculture and responsibility are mutually exclusive. This commonly entails promoting some mix of notions that most farmers are hopeless pawns of a stagnant, unsustainable system, that they use dangerous shortcuts to compensate for inferior management, and show relatively little concern for animals or the environment, let alone consumers. We know these to be some of the most insulting generalizations that can be applied to an incredibly diverse industry.

&#qOur methods tend to be more costly and labor-intensive in the short run, but it’s well worth the effort: organic farming avoids serious — and even more costly — long-term issues like groundwater pollution, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and human health problems caused by exposure to chemical residues.&#q -Earthbound Organic

Essentially, &#qBe afraid of what's out there, but remember that we're not that. Do what's right for your family and buy our stuff.&#q

&#qThere are lots of reasons for choosing to eat organic, but one of the most compelling is that organic farmers don’t use toxic persistent pesticides and that’s better for all of us.&#q -Stonyfield

Like any human institution, agriculture isn't devoid of flaws or bad actors, but it isn't as broken or stagnant as "not-conventional" ideology suggests. Commercial agriculture is more than one thing, animal agriculture is more than one thing, "conventional" farmers are more than one archetypal character, and when these massive categories are reduced to negative caricatures, it's not a marker of honest competition, nor a convenient, truthful generalization by which consumers can choose what's definitively healthier, or better for the environment. Ultimately it amounts to the promotion of prejudice.

I'd like to believe that for the most part people agree with me that it's a deplorable practice to promote prejudice against any group, whether because of race, class, sexual orientation, or any other trait. However, it seems that society has trouble acknowledging the scope of prejudice, because to build market share for "not-conventional" products, a lot of excellent farmers who dedicate their lives to feeding America are portrayed in a manner that is no less vile than urgently saying, “Gay men molest children,” as a suggestion that we should suspect that most gay men are pedophiles.

The worst accusations can be extremely upsetting, and as someone with a great deal of respect for agriculture, it once felt good to think that maybe I could round up all of the people who make these generalizations, and shame them into telling a truer story, force them to acknowledge the people they ignore, but as I've admitted, I think this is a futile approach.

With a financial imperative for a multibillion-dollar industry to scare the public, and a meaningful lapse in journalistic integrity, institution-level propaganda will continue to pervade mainstream media, trickle down into secondary outlets, and be parroted on blogs that help amateur authors feel authoritative. There will always be disinformation, and there will always be people who are in a rush to feel informed. It's time to come to grips with that realization and move forward with engaging consumers who will listen. 

Don't mistake this for a defeatist attitude– I'm only saying that countering every bad actor is emotionally taxing, and an inefficient way of addressing the larger issue, which is that most consumers are removed from agriculture to begin with.

Claim Ownership Of Your Story & Start Fresh

You’re the only members of society that almost nobody else can live without, you're some of the most sincere people I've ever met, and you are owed the voice that detractors deny you when they lump you into negative generalizations. You certainly don't deserve to be mocked for profit, but you shouldn't expect that bad information will go away, or become less accepted, until consumers develop a greater understanding of agriculture.

If you’re still driven by a desire to counter people who misrepresent you, then gradually starve them of their influence by showing the world who you actually are. Don't fall into the trap of always framing your story as a reaction. Whatever you share about yourself is more genuine than any anti-narrative, and chances are you're more likable when you're not angry. 

Also bear in mind that one of the key reasons that opposing propaganda is so successful is that it often does a brilliant job of helping consumers feel cared for and informed. You can achieve this without being disingenuous, or disparaging anyone. Simply be honest about how much you care about what you do, talk about the events that remind you why you're involved in agriculture, and share your knowledge.

Lastly, consider my background: I spent my entire young life in close proximity to agriculture. I was friends with farm kids, went to a high school with an extremely active FFA, and drove past cows every day, but until relatively recently, I knew next to nothing about farmers in my area. As you can imagine, most of my urban friends had even fewer opportunities to connect. 

Ultimately, my verdict is that disinformation isn't as much of a problem as the dire lack of well-promoted good information, which is why my first challenge to you isn't to tear down your harshest critics, or to defend the entire agricultural industry, but instead to show us your day-to-day, and introduce yourself and your family.

A fresher narrative is needed to develop trust and understanding, and nobody can tell your story better than you. The goal of this website is not to convert the most devout discipleship of Chipotle or Mark Bittman, but instead, to reach people who are curious, and genuinely open-minded. The audience that matters most is the one that will respect you for you are, and listen to your side of the story. 

To start sharing your stories here, e-mail Michael@WhatFarmingIs.com

After one of many conversations on this subject, my good friend Alvin sent me this. I can't think of a better way to distill what I'm trying to say here. Thanks Alvin. Thanks Socrates.

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