Back in the 1920s, a young lawyer – an American – no less, was stirring up trouble among rank and file farmers on the Canadian Prairies and throughout the U. S.
Aaron Sapiro was campaigning to bring about political and social change that would give farmers marketing clout through the formation of co-operatives.
We can only imagine how upsetting this would be to the status quo. Farmers owning and running their own companies? How preposterous! Farmers wouldn’t know the first thing about grain handling and marketing. How dare they pass judgment on how the system works, much less think they can do better than the experts!
Sapiro was both celebrated and vilified – depending on the position and perspective of the person holding the opinion.
It is said he was capable of packing a meeting hall with farmers and holding them mesmerized for hours, outlining his vision for a farmers’ movement based on co-operative power. His guidance helped launch the farmer-owned grain companies that dominated grain handling, marketing and commodity processing in Canada for most of the last century.
His critics, who first tried to ignore him, then went to great lengths to discredit him, including Henry Ford, who singled out Sapiro’s heritage for particular note in his book The International Jew.
According to the Wikipedia account of the scandal, one whole chapter of Ford’s book was devoted to “Jewish Exploitation of the American Farmer’s Organizations: Monopoly Traps Operate Under the Guise of Marketing Associations,” which attacked the band of Jewish bankers, lawyers, advertising agencies, fruit farmers, market buyers, and office professionals which, according to Ford, contributed to the domination of Jewish people in the American co-operative marketing system.”
It’s a familiar tactic – using labels and adding an unseemly edge to everyday words – to discredit someone whose views make you uncomfortable.
British suffragette Rebecca West summed it up rather well back in 1913. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.”
Or Gloria Steinhem, who warned: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon.”
These days, we frequently hear warnings on the meeting circuit about the threats posed to modern agriculture by various “activists,” and “special interest groups” ranging from the animal welfare movement, left-wing organizations, environmentalists, organic “freaks,” foodies, locavores, and – perhaps the most dangerous of all – those uninformed, gullible consumers who are led astray by said activists.
These increasingly shrill warnings appear to be rooted in the observation that people outside of agriculture have started asking questions and holding opinions about how it conducts its business. Citizens who are now four or more generations removed from the farm have had their interest piqued by some of these outsiders’ perspectives, but also due to some of the unfortunate realities of modern agriculture, such as food recalls. Moreover, they are not content with the usual pat answers about “feeding the world” and “efficiency.”
So what is an activist anyway? The dictionary defines activism as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” There is nothing satanic about that, but somehow we’re encouraged to believe that these “activists” could destroy the world as we know it.
For purposes of this discussion, we could also define an activist as “someone whose strong views differ from our own.”
One high-profile speaker recently expressed incredulous dismay that people are starting to buy food based on ethical considerations instead of simple good taste and price. It would seem to us that ethical decision-making is good taste in both business and in lifestyle.
Farm audiences are warned that they must be vigilant at countering the critics and defending production agriculture from the activist threat. We agree that farmers need to tell their stories and do what they can to ensure the public debate is based on reality rather than rhetoric.
It would appear, however, that the social climate around food and production agriculture is changing. That’s unsettling to be sure. On the other hand, many of the “activists” are putting their money where their mouth is, and voluntarily paying more for food. Now is not a good time to become so entrenched that we fail to see opportunities these changes might present.
Before we turn “activist” into a dirty word, let’s remember some activists have made the world a better place. [email protected]