Speak Your Piece: Who’s a ‘Real Farmer’?

Farmers spend too much time arguing about who qualifies to speak for agriculture. This doesn't help anybody.

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What defines “A Real Farmer”?

Who decides which of us gets to claim this title, and why does it matter? Competition is usually a good thing, making us all more nimble. It’s a survival thing.  But at what point does competition become counterproductive and divisive?  

The agricultural community — farmers, including me — has devoted too much energy to dividing ourselves us into categories — and have done so to our own detriment.  We’ve divided ourselves into separate, distinct, isolated categories in every way imaginable — the type of farming done, scale of farming done, where farming is done, on whose land the farming is done, with what methods the farming is done.

From these neat, narrow groupings, and with the help of outside groups standing on the sidelines promoting their own agendas, we lob stones at each other, taking out a tooth here, an eye there, and sometimes completely toppling “those people” over there.  

And who wins with this?  Certainly not farmers or farming.

I’ve seen it within my own state of Maine, where relatively large farms raising single commodities minimize the value of up-and-coming and small-scale farmers focused on local and niche markets Meanwhile, these new farmers rail against the methods of the established farmers.  

And this “who’s a real farmer” conflict is magnified when I attend national conferences, where the in-state differences are minimized by the contempt we express — the lack of respect we show — for farmers from other regions of the country.

Am I a real farmer?  Here’s how I look at it. I have assisted in a successful birthing of a calf, and I’ve lost a calf while trying to help it into this world.  

I have arthritis in my shoulders from processing turkeys for the Thanksgiving market and I’ve wrecked my lower back by hoisting 50-pound bags of grain onto my shoulder and heading out to pasture.  

I cracked a rib when I tripped in the pasture and landed on a five-gallon pail. 

Is this what a real farm looks like?

I have spent sleepless nights worrying about paying down farm debt. I have been creative and energetic in marketing our products to our neighbors and local markets. I have headed up a cooperative of farmers running a facility where we process poultry.  

I’ve been zapped by electric fence more times than I can count, had my eyelashes and nose hairs freeze in the cold, I have taught my children basic animal care and spent afternoons building fence with them.  

I’m a farmer.

The issues that divide farmers are real and do warrant attention. For example, ethanol is a growing new market, and therefore a boon for crop farmers. But this increased demand for corn has raised feed costs for livestock farmers.  

In my corner of the world water becomes an issue when too much of it begins to impact when and where farmers can farm. Yet in other parts of the country, too little water means lawyers negotiate water rights among farmers and with growing cities.  Natural, organic, conventional, industrial — we all have different farming practices and we all claim to be “sustainable.”  What, exactly, are we doing?

For all that divides us, we farmers need to come together because we face common threats.  Where do we draw the line between humane treatment of animals and animal rights?  How do we stand up for best farming practices when neighbors in newly created subdivisions attempt to shut down well-established farms because the sights, smells, and sounds of agriculture offend them? Can we develop markets where we can earn a fair price for our products?  

I have advocated for eight years in the legislature that farms are small businesses, and that if farmers don’t treat them that way, and if neighbors don’t see them that way, they are doomed to fail. It is a constant struggle and one that we don’t always win.

I think it’s time we dealt with our differences with respect and compassion, and combine our efforts in support of farming. We can struggle separately, or we can focus on our common threats and opportunities together, farmers all.

Nancy Smith is a farmer and a former Maine state representative.



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