Changing the world

Terry and I have been farming organically for more than 35 years. We began thinking about how to grow food when environmentalism was a growing movement among young, hippie types who embraced countercultural lifestyles and sought to move “back to the land.” Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” written in 1962, was gaining popularity while other “experts” were touting “better living through chemistry.” Some agronomists preached that in the future soil would simply be the medium which held plants and all necessary nutrients would be applied with a sprayer.

In 1980 markets for organically grown crops were small, hard to access and most crops were exported to Europe. The media coverage of alternative agriculture was limited and usually limited to condescending human interest stories.

Things have changed. Food stories of one kind or another appear daily in newspapers, on the radio, on television and over the internet. “Local food,” “organic,” “natural,” “grass-fed,” and “sustainable agriculture” are now regular topics of mainstream media. What is more important, these terms are now frequent topics of conversation at the dinner table and over coffee with friends. These ideas affect consumers daily food choices. There has been a dramatic shift in how many think about food.

The growth in local, organic, and grass-fed food consumption has created new challenges. What was once viewed as a novelty now is seen as threatening to companies which have expanded, consolidated and profited by “conventional” agriculture and food processing and distribution. Frequent editorials and food industry press releases disparage organic agriculture and the new food movement as elitist, impractical, and even dangerous.

Alternative agriculture in the past was rarely taken seriously and received minimal opposition. Not any more.

One of the current arguments used by industrial agriculture is that organic agriculture is not based on science. We are depicted as old-fashioned and farming the way our grandfathers farmed only with more weeds.

On the other hand, there are supporters of alternative agriculture that make outlandish statements, use pseudo science and fear to sell organic substitutes for chemicals. There are those who see organic as a marketing scheme and look to capture market share by using all the loopholes in the certification and labeling rules.

This is a crucial time for sustainable, organic agriculture.

Organic agriculture is science-based. We have good science on our side. Soil scientists have proven what we have long believed. Soil is complex and it’s health is crucial for growing healthy plants and animals. We need even more research which looks at what we do with defensible studies. That means we have to be willing to consider results that sometimes show that we have been heading down the wrong path. We need more research which studies how systems work in nature and how we can best copy what works. We need to support development of seed varieties which work in the systems we use. We need research into new equipment that is energy efficient, effective and of an appropriate scale. We will have to find a way to pay for that research.

We need to support development of organic agriculture in the Third World. Poor countries will never be markets for our products. The problem of hunger is an economic problem, not a production problem. We need to shift the discussion of “feeding the world” to one of justice and helping others feed themselves. We must advocate for making more resources available to small scale farming around the world.

We need to become scientifically literate so we can respond to critics who say we base our work on bad science. We also need to learn more about science so we don’t buy into organic quackery ourselves. Pseudo-science is easily debunked by those who find organic food and alternative agriculture a threat. One widely publicized snake oil seller can undo years of good work by many. Let’s not give the other side examples to support their claim that our efforts are a scam.

We need to learn to present our position clearly and credibly. We need to stop letting the other side frame the discussion. Don’t respond to attacks by other writers on the editorial page of the newspaper or the comments section of a web site. Write a letter to the editor which promotes what you do in a positive way. Don’t make claims you can’t back up. Don’t attack your neighbors and their farming practices. Doing so will only make them defend their position more resolutely. Ask questions. Be willing to answer questions without being defensive.

We are up against public relations specialists who have vast resources available to them. What they don’t have is us. Consumers trust family farmers and distrust large corporations. Build relationships. Talk about why you do what you do, how you care for your animals and your land. Be honest and humble. Be respectful.

Twentieth century sociologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

We can change the world.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains