Letter from Langdon: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane

Faster than a speeding pick-up. More powerful than a diesel tractor. Are America's farmers really heroes? Or are corporations just fattening them up with flattery?

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She asked me if I thought farmers are heroes.

It was a radio interview last year, about Missouri’s Right to Farm Amendment. The young reporter had been reading and listening to propaganda from the other side, packed with platitudes about farmers and what we put up with from ’possum lovers and tree huggers and God-awful government.

“Do you think farmers are heroes?”

Repeat the question?

“Do you see yourself and other farmers as heroes?”

Well, no. Not really.

She seemed taken aback.

Heroes are firemen who go into a smoke-filled, burning house.

Heroes are cops like the one who was shot and killed in Omaha awhile back while apprehending a murderer – just a day before her maternity leave was set to begin.

Heroes are soldiers like the U.S. Army Master Sergeant I saw stride through a Washington D.C. hotel lobby, head held high, his face and scalp scarred by horrific burns.

I’ve known farmers who were heroes. Farmers who fought in wars. Farmers who defied handicaps and found ways to keep on working. Farmers who stood up to big corporations or defied the government, win or lose, just because it was the right thing to do.

It has its ups and downs. Weather, government, corporations, they always pick on farmers. In spite of everything, farmers are optimists. Who else would see 20 million pounds of manure as an asset?

Maybe optimism in the face of adversity makes us seem heroic to some.

But are farmers heroes for being farmers?

I don’t think so.

My father’s generation would have sniffed at being called heroes and some of the other self-serving things big businesses (the ones who buy from and sell to farmers) say in their advertising. They would have seen those statements for what they were: big business’ attempts to catch more flies with honey.

Big corporations may call farmers heroes in their advertising, but their actions speak louder than their words.

Forty years ago when we poured granular organophosphate insecticides from paper sacks with our bare hands into corn planters, we weren’t told how that might affect our health. Then 20 years later chemical companies started offering free planter attachments to protect farmers from contact.

We told everyone it was perfectly safe. Maybe it was. I’m still here.

But why all the precautions now?

When the growth hormone diethylstilbestrol was used to make cattle grow faster, some people suspected it disrupted human health. Corporations, joined by farmers, protested regulation of the hormone. They really needed that tool in the toolbox of agriculture.

But it was bad. And now it’s banned.

And when a large chemical corporation argued that consumers didn’t need to know when the synthetic dairy hormone rBST was used on milk cows because it was indistinguishable from natural growth hormones, some farmers backed them up. The argument wasn’t over dairy farmers being required to label rBST in their milk, but whether or not organic dairies could simply tell consumers their product was free of potential cancer causing artificial hormones.

After years of saying that glyphosate-resistant crops use fewer pesticides, we’re learning that it now takes an average of two-and-a-half different herbicides per application, at higher rates, to overcome increasing weed resistance to glyphosate and other herbicides. And we plant seeds coated with neonicotinoids to protect them from insects but maybe killing pollinators too. And we’re using more fertilizer and taking more land from conservation use to grow more crops even though the value of those crops is in decline.

Is all that bad? The law allows it. I’m doing it, too. But as farmers, some of us repeat what our corporate sponsors say, many times without really considering whether it’s true or not. Perfectly safe? Using fewer pesticides? Doing more with less?

Not necessarily. 

Farmers are always taken advantage of. A favorite saying, an idea first uttered in 1922 by Kansas Senator Arthur Capper, goes like this:

Farming is the only business left that buys at retail and sells at wholesale; that pays what is asked when it buys and accepts what is offered when it sells. The farmer remains merely a producer of the necessaries of human life. After he has produced them other organizations take them over at their own price for distribution. This is true of no other important industry.

Then Capper co-authored the Capper-Volstead Act legalizing farm cooperatives to give farmers more power in the marketplace and a chance to buy and sell in direct competition with corporations.

Those words and actions made Capper a hero to farmers.

Like everyone else, we enjoy praise. The big businesses who sell us expensive things know that. So sometimes they buy advertising time on radio and TV extolling the virtues of American farmer heroes, like the “God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad.

Then if all goes well, people buy their stuff.

I was guilty of repeating it at first … until I thought about it. But saying U.S. farmers feed the world was popular with farm advocates while it lasted. We never did that, actually. And while we do enjoy a positive balance of trade for agriculture goods, most of what we sell is raw material, like cotton, that foreign manufacturers return to America as value added textiles. Our government even approved exporting raw chicken to China and buying the cooked product back again.

You’d have to be pretty brave to eat that.

So it caught my eye when the president of Farm Bureau said recently that America’s farmers really don’t feed the world.  This turnabout in perception, the admission, seems to be because most American consumers are more concerned with the idea of feeding themselves.

Or maybe it’s a harbinger of things to come.

As farms get bigger with fewer and fewer farmers, we look less like heroes and more like other big business. In the meantime a few big concerns use farm faces and farmer words as a marketing program while they, not us, shape our produce into products consumers buy. 

We’re OK as long as those products meet consumer expectations. But what happens if they don’t? There’s plenty of competition from farmers in other parts of the world. China, South America, Europe, Canada, and Mexico – they all want to sell us food.

While American farmers may not feed the world, the world aspires to feed us.

How long before multinational corporations christen those farmers the “real” heroes of agriculture?

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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