Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Food Writers Who Forget Rural America


Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette Ressa Charter is a Montana rancher who wants many of the things that New York Times columnist Mark Bittman writes about. The difference is that Charter knows the power of the markets in ag and how they affect farmers and rural communities. Bittman doesn't.

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman continues to write about food as if farmers and rural communities didn’t exist. 

Bittman’s column Wednesday was about “fixing our food problem.” Bittman finds quite a bit that needs attention. He writes that what we grow and how we grow it has “been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on.”

What the nation must do, Bittman commands, is to “figure out a way to uninvent this food system.”

Great! Maybe Bittman has something in mind for farmers and rural America. 

Well, you can read for yourself. The column is here. But you can take our word for it, there’s much more in this column about what should be done to improve the lives of farm animals than of the men and women who raise them.

What’s entirely missing from Bittman’s column — and what’s missing from almost all “foodie” writing — is any acknowledgement that the food industry has been rapidly consolidating, leaving farmers and communities powerless in an industrial system that is controlled by a handful of firms, from seed to grocery aisle. 

(We’ve made this complaint before. See Richard Oswald’s response here after Bittman wrote that changing the way a farm worked would be “simple.”) 

We remind Yonder readers that four years ago the Departments of Justice and Agriculture began an investigation of anti-trust in agriculture. The Obama administration held hearings on seed monopoly, meat monopoly and monopoly in the grocery business. Officials collected evidence from farmers and ag workers that their incomes and their lives were constricted by markets that were considerably less than free.

Then, nothing. The Obama administration took no action. All this happened without a peep from the New York Times or Bittman.

You can read a very good story on this entire debacle written by Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette. It ran the same day as Bittman’s column. Lutey writes: 

Ranchers like Ressa Charter, disappointed with the prices offered for cattle, had hoped President Barack Obama might ride to their rescue by reforming cattle markets after the 2008 election.

Instead, what they got was more like a six-second ride at the rodeo — a fast, furious round of hearings before getting bucked into the dirt. (See Ressa in the photo above.)

Lutey interviews Charter in a video that goes with this story. In 100 seconds, Charter makes more sense about how to develop a local AND fair food system than Bittman can conjure in a year’s worth of columns. 

Ressa Charter and Bittman want many of the same things — quality food grown and humanely raised in a way that preserves land and water. But Bittman and most other so-called “food movement” writers ignore the issues of power and markets that Charter sees as essential. 

The Times describes Mark Bittman’s column as being about “food and all things related.” Well, not quite “all.” Rural people and the economic power they must deal with are not included.

Bill Bishop is co-editor of The Daily Yonder.




Andy Martin.at the Times did do a blockbuster article on the power of Dean Foods in dairy. Also, there was a recent piece about sheep markets. However,.Bittman in general puts out commentary that teaches urban readers that actual farmers and their experiences are of no consequence unless the farmers espouse the same jargon as Bittman.

Fixing Bittman & Co

It's great to see that there are others out there who are trying to help Bittman live up to his own best values.  He fails miserably, as he (like the Food Movement generally,) doesn't understand how the Farm Bill works.  I find that the thesis here, that he also doesn't understand the biggest factor of all, farm markets (and the corporate influences on them,) is right on Target. I've argued much the same in "Farm Bill Economics:  Think Ecology."  As in nature, farm and food policy advocates need to understand the complex interactions of the markets, and not just look for quick fixes like taking subsidy money away to give to other purposes, without any consideration of the much larger realm of (nonsubsidy) market management.  All too often food advocates like Bittman see only farm bill spending, and not the much larger body of data about exploitative market changes, and the need for a return to effective market management policies, including the full range of thos antitrust measures that were explained to the Obama administration and Congress, and that were then ignored. 

He's an ally, not an enemy

Michael Pollan has been quoted as saying that his editors tell him no one wants to read about agriculture, but everyone wants to read about food.

Bittman, I'm sure, knows that; he's writing for an audience that is so disconnected from the land and from agriculture that starting from the farmers'/land point of view will do nothing to change the system. Change movements start with passion, not education. And even if every farmer or farmer's daughter was passionate about a new system of agriculture (and of those that are left, many are not, as they are doing just fine in the old one), there are so few farmers left now that they are not, as Ag Secretary Vilsack suggested, "relevant" to the nation's political conversation anymore. We need the country's eaters to want to change the system. And urban and high-minded as he may be, Bittman can help make them care.

Perhaps a little education on his part would help his writing--a day on a South Dakota cattle farm, or on the Montana farm listed here, would do much to help his perspective. But I think any animosity toward him is misplaced. He's on our side, folks.  

Bittman: for and against

The Food Movement in general, and Bittman himself, have many positive values that are good for agriculture.  The original article here supports these truths, it does not oppose them, and the same is true across my writings. 

The biggest problem is that, as those values are translated into advocacy for policies, for example, they lead people like Bittmann into advocacy directly against the good values of the food movement, and directly against farmers. The biggest example is farm subsidies.  Farmers started losing "relevance" and "clout" in the early 1950s, as farm bills began to be designed more and more against them.  Price floors were lowered under pressure from corporate buyers. Their clout has increased in about every farm bill since, as farmers' clout has shrunk away to almost nothing (price floors were lowered drastically over the long haul (1953-1995) then eliminated, and we had ever lower prices, decade by decade, running most farmers out of business. These are massive reductions, something like $4+ trillion (adjusted for inflation) for 10 commodity crops plus dairy.  That was Congress, the Farm Bill, (plus the well known reality that farm commodities lack price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides). Later (ie. 1977 for rice) subsidies came along and gave farmers back $1 for each $8 of reductions.  Bittman, operating out of the Food Subsidy Paradigm, sees only the +$1, and not the -$8 (that the agribusiness buyers receive), and therefore sides with the transfat/high fructose corn syrup complex, etc. against farmers, in direct opposition to his own values.  He blames the victims, and along the way, misinterprets contradictory data (see "Phillpot & Bittman are Wrong about Tim Wise").

With friends like this.....

Having comforted the children of a dairy farmer who committed suicide and having represented scores of dairy farmers referred to bankruptcy or in court with creditors as an ag attorney, I find it hard to believe in Mark Bittman as a friend to the average farmers of NY.  In NY, we have about 5,400 family owned dairy farms, average farm is 113 cows.  The milk produced by the hands of our farmers puts about $2 Billion dollars into NY's worknig countryside.  Most of the milk that people in NYC drink comes from regional fluid milk, the dairy farms within a few hundred miles of NYC.  Almost 40% of the milk produced in NY goes right into fluid drinking milk as opposed to products.  Fluid milk is the most important component of price setting mechanisms for us.  As less milk is sold for drinking, our price DECLINES.  As prices decline, we see more empty farms.  NY currently has some 3,000,000 acres of abndoned or underused grazing land (See Cornell:  "Green Grass, Green Jobs" report).

Your suggestion that Bittman take a trip to a South Dakota or Montana farm is nice, but he has yet to even talk with the dairy farmers of his own state:  New York.   For us, in NY, what Mark Bittman tells the food interested people is very important because we count on urban input when our state's ag policy is formulated.  Unfortunately, what's he's told millions of readers is that that milk comes from cows "...most of whom live tortured, miserable lives while making a significant contribution to greenhouse gases."  Mark Bittman devoted considerable column space to in 2012 to attack milk as a beverage and food, and to put out misinformation about our local dairy farms. Indeed, he denies our existence, telling the NY public that "the bucolic cow and family farm barely exist..."  Numerous of his columns have savaged animal agriculture, telling the public that cows are ruining the planet. Indeed, a TEDx talk that he gave began with a photo of a cow juxtaposed with a nuclear bomb. 

The net result of Bittman's propaganda, is that when we, as really busy dairy farmers, try our best to make time to speak with the NYC food interested public, the first thing that we can expect from some (not all) is a full-on attack...often with a parroting of Bittman's opinion pieces to us.  This is destructive and divisive. 

I invite Mr. Bittman to come Upstate and at least talk with the farmers that you have spent considerable time crucifying.  You can reach me anytime at [email protected], Mr. Bittman

True, but...

Bittman is indeed more of an ally than foe. And the definitive piece on the DOJ/USDA hearings was just published in the Washington Monthly:


While I fully concede that the Obama administration has done little to help family farmers and rural America, I have special scorn for the members of Congress from rural areas that claim to represent family farmers. As USDA and DOJ tried to implement even meager reforms, those Congressional representatives screamed bloody murder and tried to block them at every opportunity. Did the Obama administration fight hard enough? No. But when even Democrats are standing up for the meatpackers and yelling at USDA for trying to write and enforce even the barest mininum of Packers and Stockyards Act regulations, what are they supposed to do? The true shame should be reserved for the elected representatives from these areas who have presided over the wholesale decimation of the family farm economy. They believe it is inevitable, the result of "market forces". But we know it isn't inevitable- it is the result of deliberate policy choices made by those with economic and political power. To expect Mark Bittman to discuss those realities is a bit much. Really, this is on rural America. It is time for us to come together, have this conversation, and elect people to Congress who will fight to do the right thing. Until then, we'll only hear about phantom dust regulations and scare tactics from the AFBF about the Humane Society.