Letter from Langdon: Follow the Gravy

Is U.S. agriculture really "under attack"? With obfuscation in the markets for livestock and crops and lax enforcement of existing regulations, it's hard even for a seasoned farmer to be sure.

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Simple things–like the first meal of the day–are always best. Bacon and eggs, pancakes and sausage, biscuits, or plain old grits, you just can’t beat a country breakfast. When it gets right down to it, the flavor of the whole day is topped off with one thing: Good or bad, for better or worse, it’s all about gravy.

A few years ago, hotels started offering customers breakfast at free buffets. First it was cereal, yogurt, fruit, and bagels. Before long every lobby was filled with the aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, and gravy.

Homemade gravy is good…even the duck gravy Mom made from my twelve pet ducks. At least until I figured out what it was.

Maybe not so much at home, but before long “homemade” hotel gravy was replaced with a canned corporate product. It looks just like the real thing. Sadly, that’s where the resemblance stops. Real gravy is to roast duck as motel gravy is to decoy.

Speaking of duck, that’s what a seasoned reporter had to do when she posed to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack a pointed question during a bacon, egg, biscuits and gravy breakfast meeting in St Joseph, Missouri.

She asked if he agreed that agriculture in our country is under attack. From the look on Vilsack’s face, he’d just been fed a mouthful of corporate gravy.

First he frowned, then he thought. After a moment he told the reporter he felt he’d just been insulted. That’s because Vilsack is one of the most traveled advocates for farms and rural citizens this country has ever known. In fact, he was in NW Missouri doing just that when he was acquainted with one of the most common phrases echoed around farm meetings these days.

“Agriculture is under attack.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ate a healthy lunch with students in Virginia. The Ag Secretary has been traveling nationwide to advocate for U.S. farmers.
When he weighs competing interests in agriculture, Vilsack spreads his hands in a sweeping gesture saying, “I have two children and I love them both.” He’s talking about things like corporate food versus local farmers markets–GMOs as opposed to organics. You get the picture: it’s a big pie, and while corporations would like to divvy it up, there are still lots of people who want the pie fresh and the gravy homemade.

Sometimes when I start thinking my government is too friendly to big business it helps to look around the kitchen at the labels on my own food. I’m a pretty big supporter myself. And my guess is the Secretary eats a little of both also.

For better or worse, America has built a food distribution system second to none. But in doing that we’ve sacrificed control of profits and future food–how it’s made and what it costs–to an opaque world of big business that doesn’t mind stirring the political pot to gain control of even more.

Anytime anyone tries to change the way we get our food, they risk getting caught in corporate crossfire. That’s one of the reasons we have so much trouble with country of origin labeling in America (COOL). Fair trade rules signed with other countries don’t let our countrymen know if the sauce came from here or there. Without fair rules, big business gets to ride the gravy train of food politics all the way to the bank.

Now it’s hard for me to tell if agriculture is really under attack or if we’re stewing over laws that make it harder for corporations to do their business.

Richard Oswald
It was rumored that EPA planned to regulate dust on farms — false, but just one more suspicion for those who see a government “assault” on agriculture. Dust is part of farm and ranch life, proven again by a bean field in Langdon, Missouri.

The attack mind-set comes from a whole assortment of recent events, like actions by animal rights groups to improve conditions for livestock in confinement. But it’s also political in nature when farm groups unite against ridiculous threats of EPA dust regulation. According to Vilsack, slapping the lid on dusty farm fields was never even planned. That didn’t keep a lot of people from saying it was.

Something similar came up when OSHA offered up new rules for kids in the rural workplace. Vilsack took his opportunity in NW Missouri to explain that low wage immigrant farm couples were bringing their children to farms and fields where they work, and that those kids were endangered by machinery and field operations they had no understanding of. That’s a far cry from farm kids milking in the family dairy or showing livestock at the county fair.

Rather than circle the wagons, Vilsack told his audience that we need to have a conversation. We need to talk, not accuse, and consider the big picture. For example, he invited EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to visit a working farm. When Jackson had the opportunity to climb into a farm tractor, she pointed to an electronic box in the cab and asked what it was for. That gave the farmer a chance to tell her he used global position satellite technology to avoid over application of farm chemicals and fertilizer. She’d had no idea before, but now she does thanks to open truthful discussion.

Visiting Pleasantville, Iowa, last spring, EPA’s Lisa Jackson and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke with Monty Collins (left) about rotational grazing on his cattle farm.

On the other hand if you don’t want to talk about livestock in confinement, what you paid for animals or crops, where they came from or how they were raised, it might just be easier to say that people who want that debate are in attack mode.

Generally speaking a lot of conservative farmers have supported forming a broad coalition of agricultural interests known as U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Other similar organizations have sprung up on the state level. In Missouri we have Missouri Farmers Care. The stated purpose of these groups is to tell the story of agriculture in an attempt to head off the Humane Society and other animal rights groups, as well as to fight regulatory actions by hostile government or citizen groups. The rub comes when support or membership springs from corporate chemical, grain, livestock, and seed industries most affected by those actions.

All that money can be effective: fair market enforcement by USDA’s GIPSA arm was cut off at the shoulder thanks to massive, well funded opposition that saw Armageddon just around the corner. Agriculture was “under assault.”

Ending corporate market control was seen as an “attack.”  Likewise in my state, the Missouri General Assembly has limited the ability of citizens to demand and get reasonable satisfaction in court when big livestock does people dirty. Still more laws are planned with carefully worded language guaranteeing Supreme-Court-defined “persons” (a.k.a. corporations) the right to practice “agriculture.”

Don’t we have that now? On any drive through rural Missouri where corporate hogs and poultry are a lot more common than rural schoolhouses, it seems natural to ask Missouri lawmakers, “is this trip really necessary?”

As government cuts funding and steps away from paying for enforcement, it stands to reason that corporate targets continue to be the whole enchilada from dirt to doughnut. That’s why even though big corporations have been left out of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s name, they still funnel money into its bank account.

When farm kids left in droves, we said it was “market forces at work.” And when hog and poultry production became more concentrated and controlled, we said it was “technology driven.” Now, thanks to higher prices for the things we grow, a basic family farm of no more than three or four hundred acres could actually support a family unit. But rural populations are still in decline. Even locally produced cattle numbers are dropping though prices are near record highs.

Markets don’t function as they are supposed to when no one knows where they are or when they trade. Technology hasn’t made livestock confinements sustainable or kept them from smelling bad. In fact, about the only thing that’s changed–mostly for the worse–have been laws and rules needed to keep the whole system honest.

But is any or all of agriculture under siege? How about the family farm? What’s in the gravy? With no serious money devoted to telling the real story, we may never figure it out.

 

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