A New York-based food-and-culture media site initiates a rare conversation with a mid-sized family farmer from the Midwest. The Daily Yonder's Richard Oswald says he’s not the enemy and that the “foodie” movement needs to do more to help family farmers with anti-trust policy.
The farmer and the foodie should be friends, to paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein.
But that’s not how things work out, much of the time. At least when the local food enthusiasts are located in major metropolitan areas on the coasts, and the farmers in question use conventional agricultural methods and are located well beyond the urban limits.
So it’s a rare treat to eavesdrop on a conversation between urban food enthusiast Erin Fairbanks of Brooklyn and our own Richard Oswald of Langdon, Missouri, who writes the “Letter from Langdon” column for the Daily Yonder.
On Fairbanks’ podcast on Heritage Radio Network, Fairbanks and Oswald discuss the gulf between family farmers and some urban food enthusiasts, who often paint conventional mid-sized farmers as “the enemy,” rather than a potential ally in the food-reform movement.
America’s mid-sized family farmers are caught in the middle between corporate agriculture and the local food enthusiasts, Oswald says.
“Right in the middle [of these two agricultural systems] are people like me who are multi-generational family farmers,” Oswald said. “We are the people who have the accumulated knowledge that’s passed down from one generation to the next about how to grow food.”
Food-reform enthusiasts are missing an opportunity to join these mid-sized farmers in supporting anti-trust policies that will improve U.S. agriculture, he said.
“When the local food movement has conversations in New York City with writers like Mark Bittman, who writes for the New York Times, and [author] Michael Pollan, they tend to lump us all in with the industrial food folks,” Oswald said. “It makes it very difficult for people like me who have to fight to stay on the farm at all. It makes it frustrating for me to be lumped in with what’s considered to be an undesirable life. … We’re not industrial food producers, we’re family farmers.”
Fairbanks said it is hard for urban-based food advocates to understand where commercial agriculture fits with the local-food movement’s goal of creating better local food supplies.
She described her experience getting to know a conventional dairy farmer while she was working on an organic farm in Upstate New York. “I was fresh off the boat from New York City and I’m like, ‘Well, I read in this book by Michael Pollan that cows aren’t supposed to eat corn or grains because they are ruminants and they are meant to only eat grass.’”
She said the cattle, which were eating some grain, were healthy and happy and the fifth-generation farmer was well trained and had a lifetime of experience working the land, in contrast to Fairbanks, who was brand new to farming. “I’m trying to imagine myself in his shoes [listening to] some kid from Brooklyn saying something is wrong here because I read a book. It was a weird moment for me.”
Oswald said that he supports the local-food movement. But to stay on his Missouri farm he has had to focus on growing crops for which there is a market in his region. In his case, that’s corn and soybeans. He said when he was growing up, the farm also produced hogs, cattle, chicken and wheat, but consolidation in the agricultural industry had reduced family-farm diversity.
Instead of attacking commercial family farmers as the enemy, Oswald said the local-food movement should help encourage the Obama administration to enforce anti-trust regulations that are supposed to keep corporations from consolidating the food industry.
“You see all kinds of antitrust enforcement and give and take between large corporations,” Oswald said. “If someone steals someone’s cell phone technology, they sue and the government says that’s not right. … But when it comes to food, it doesn’t seem that it matters to the government how big the food industry is allowed to grow and how concentrated it is allowed to become.”
The biggest consolidation has come in the pork and chicken industries, he said.
In the comments on the podcast, Daily Yonder contributing editor Bill Bishop said the local-food movement didn’t support the administration’s antitrust efforts in 2010, and the government dropped plans to enforce antitrust laws that are supposed to stop consolidation in the meatpacking industry.
“I can't remember one person from the ‘food movement’ testifying or writing about these hearings,” Bishop wrote. “The effort to break up big food was simply ignored by ‘Brooklyn.’”
“When you ask what can be done, I would suggest that next time there is an attempt to deal with the unfair markets Richard describes, you all join in with groups like the Farmers Union and R-CALF and the Organization for Competitive Markets. And, no, they don't have offices in NYC.”
Another commenter who said she had experience in both urban and rural America said the “foodie” movement needed to do more than sign Internet petitions. “As for us ‘foodies,’ we tend to do our ‘good work’ by pressing thumbs up on social media campaigns, hitting ‘Yes’ on Internet petitions, then going back to our lives pretty much as ignorant now as we were before.”
The commenter , with the screename Jwbrooklyn, said making family farmers the enemy was a mistake.
“Farmers will grow what people want, as they are doing in the niche markets near urban areas, but otherwise, as in farms much like Richard's, they are growing what the corporate powers want, not to feed people so much as to feed the cheap food system for the profit of a few. This has somehow made them the ‘enemy.’ Why?”