Talk is cheap but words have meaning.
In a mid-January speech to the 400 or so farmers, vendors and state officials at the 10th annual Minnesota Organic Conference in St. Cloud, I spent most of my hour talking about words like “elitist,” “educate,” “farmer,” “producer,” “customer” and even “mule.”
I thought the talk went well, but 10 days afterwards a letter from the president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau arrived to relate “a county farm bureau volunteer leader” had heard the speech and had emailed the prez about my “unrelenting attack of farm bureau, American farm bureau President Bob Stallman, and radio personalities in our state.”
Had the ag leader been in attendance that day he would have heard for himself that my “unrelenting attack” consisted of two direct quotes from AFBF president Stallman’s speech to his members at the group’s annual convention earlier that week.
The first was Stallman’s call for AFBF members to “aggressively” confront food “extremists”: “A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule.”
The second was more vague but equally charged: “The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over.”
So who was the voice behind the Voice of Agriculture referring to?
Maybe me, I joshed, because, after all, I was the only one in the building wearing a tie that morning.
Maybe you, I said, because the homegrown organic cheeses, sausages, ham, vegetables, milk, bread, butter and other treats you had served for supper and breakfast certainly didn’t come from the corn and soybean producers most Americans think of when they think of U. S. agriculture.
In fact, I admitted, your idea of farming probably is elitist and a throwback to a mule-and-40-acres scene because you believe more strongly in feeding your customers what they want than in feeding the world what it can’t afford.
I went on to note that while one billion people around the world will go hungry tonight, four out of five of ’em will be hungry because they are poor, not because the food to feed them is unavailable. That’s a critical fact rarely mentioned by “feed the world” farm groups.
Another misnomer is calling farmers producers. Producers of what – pork, beef, corn, dairy, wheat? That sounds as if everything you grow comes off a production line rather than from a farm field, barn, pasture or ranch.
Give customers – elite or not – a chance to pick between a pork chop “produced” by a pork “producer” or one raised with skill and husbandry by a hog “farmer,” and what chop will they take?
Right; so give ’em what they want, not what you want.
And, please, please, please, I begged, farm and commodity groups need to stop trying to “educate” me and everyone out here on what it is they do, want or need.
Instead, farmers and farm groups should honestly and openly “inform” consumers on what it is they do and how they do it and then trust consumers to make the right choice. Consumers are smart; they can already read and write. As such, they need more information, not more education.
I finished to loud applause. As I walked off the stage the applause grew into a pulsating wave that turned into a loud, long standing ovation. It stopped only after I raised my arms and joked, “Oh stop it; Lutherans don’t do standing ovations.”
We don’t. Just ask any Lutheran Farm Bureau member.