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This isn’t the blog post I set out to write this morning. But, as is often the case when I read something that just doesn’t sit just right, I have to put my thoughts on paper (or in this case, computer screen).

It was the title that lured me in: “Are Conventional Farmers Evil?” The post on the blog Urban Organic Gardener was a response to yet another article I’d already read, “The Unconventional Harvest: Conventional Dairy Farmer Art Thelen,” by Nathan Winters.

Spending the night with Thelen on his dairy, Winters discovers that “conventional” farmers are not the bad guys they’re often portrayed by food activists who utter the phrase “industrial farming” with every other breath.

“Art Thelen, was a good farmer who was doing his job and doing it well. While many other farmers were either selling out or failing miserably, he had beat the odds and flourished. Art Thelen was simply doing what he loved and what was best for his family. Most of all, he was doing what he felt God had wanted him to do. Can anyone argue with that?”
– Nathan Winters

It’s a good piece, and I hope you take the time to read it.

In the Urban Organic Gardener blog, author Mike Lieberman starts off on the right foot by saying it’s good to get the other side of any story.

“It’s easy for people to get all preachy and demonize the farmers as if they are intentionally poisoning us and ruining the environment. That kind of attitude doesn’t help to bring about the change that we all want to see happen.”

Great, I thought. This guy gets it. No issue is black or white.

But it goes down hill from there. “…I don’t think it’s the farmers that are to point the finger at. It’s government and the chemical companies to blame. … They have all bought into the system that has been pitched and sold to them. … It’s the system and those that are selling this to the farmers that are the ones we should be faulting.”

That logic reminds me of my first year of a six-year term as an elder at my church. We had just hired a new minister the previous year, and the pews were full. But then, we started hearing some inconsistencies about his church work, and recognized some borderline poor ethical decisions (some would say outright fraud). We, as church leaders, met with the minister, and with our denomination leaders higher up the ladder. We offered verbal suggestions for improvements, which then had to become written guidelines. Our regional denomination leaders became so familiar, we were all on a first-name basis. Somewhere along the line, it became very clear the situation couldn’t continue and we needed to sever our relationship with this pastor. At a standing-room-only congregational meeting, the minister’s wife accused us (elders) of being mere puppets of the denomination hierarchy.

That did it. I had to stand (and probably even pointed my finger at her) and tell her how ludicrous that sounded — as if we weren’t intelligent, thinking beings capable of sifting through facts and details to make our own decision.

Farmers are the same way. They are not pawns being used by any corporation or government entity. They are smart (or they wouldn’t make it in farming), intelligent beings capable of sifting through facts and details to make their own decisions about what will work best on their farms.

Yes, companies make money when they sell a farmer a product. Is that inherently bad? Is the product automatically suspect? Technology/computer firms make a bundle off the computers we use and toss out to clog some landfill every 3-4 years. Are they evil, too?

Some farmers choose to focus on raising certified organic crops and produce. Others choose to raise their crops conventionally, judiciously using herbicides or pesticides. Some farmers use intensive grazing to feed their livestock; others use a mixture of grazing and confinement; still others use exclusively confinement. Is one method right and the others wrong?

Conventional farmers are not evil if they choose to farm that way. They have not been sold a false bill of goods, and they are not ignoring environmental facts. In fact, today’s farmer probably farms more “sustainably” than his grandfather did, when farming practices paid little regard to the environment. If they’ve enlarged their farms, it’s not because they’re money-grubbing capitalists, it’s probably because they’re bringing a son or daughter or niece or nephew into the operation, and to support more family-owners, you need to increase your income.

I think what gets me the most riled up is the idea that someone is right and someone is wrong when considering organic versus conventional agricultural practices. We need to recognize there are organic farmers who are poor managers, just as there are conventional farmers who are poor managers.

We have met the enemy, and it’s the finger-pointers unwilling to listen to the other side. No matter which side that is.

(P.S. I won’t even go into Lieberman’s comment about milk from cows that are “milked for hours and days on end.” Seriously? Hours? Try minutes. Go visit a dairy farm.)

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.
Susan Crowell
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