Tuesday Roundup: Atlantic’s ‘Udder Fantasy’

Candidates answer Farm Bureau Questions • The Onion has its own rural poll • Why not a national grain reserve? • Humane Society files suit over pork check-off spending

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The Atlantic magazine published a story August 20th claiming that big agriculture was “destroying a way of life” in a New York county. 

The story, written by Malcolm Burnley, told how large-scale agriculture was raising land prices in St. Lawrence County, forcing members of the local Amish community to search dumpsters for food and, eventually, pushing them out of a place where they once engaged in small-scale, but flourishing agriculture.

Great story. Trouble is, it wasn’t true.

Watertown Daily Times reporter Christopher Robbins takes the Atlantic story apart in a piece that appeared Sunday. It is a model of good reporting and the importance of having reporters living, breathing and writing in rural communities. 

Instead of Amish leaving St. Lawrence County, they are moving in, Robbins finds. They are coming because land prices in northern New York State are still cheap compared to the rest of the nation. 

And have big agribusinesses been flooding in to St. Lawrence County? “I can’t say that I am aware of the expansion of agribusiness; things have been relatively stable,” Matilda M. Larson, a St. Lawrence County planner, told Robbins. “I know that we are seeing an increase in the number of smaller farms.”

“The idea of big agribusiness destroying a way of life, I think that is a bit much,” Brent Buchanan, agriculture team leader for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Canton, told Robbins. “The Amish have fit in a niche. They’ve wedged themselves between medium-sized and large farms and they do OK, especially relative to the rest of the country.”

Not only did Robbins knock the foundation from under the Atlantic story, he explained how Burnley got it so wrong. It turns out the Staten Island native and recent Brown University graduate worked a few weeks on a farm in St. Lawrence County. Burnley took the word of one local farmer and then came back to St. Lawrence County to tell that story. His mind was made up before he did his reporting.

Unfortunately, Burnley didn’t know much about his subject. 

“The writer didn’t know the difference between bail and bale, teats and udders, DePeyster and Canton, and wrote that huge agribusinesses have moved into St. Lawrence County, which is simply not true,” said Watertown Daily Times Managing Editor Robert D. Gorman. “Despite acknowledging Mr. Burnley’s factual errors, his editors are still convinced he methodically unraveled an incredibly complex socioeconomic trend in regional farming. I have told them Mr. Burnley got that wrong, too, but to no avail.” The Atlantic corrected the spelling, but the magazine is standing by the validity of Burnley’s reporting.

This is a great story, and tells so much about journalism, the relationship between city and country and how important it is to listen.

Congratulations to Christopher Robbins and the Watertown Daily Times.

HSUS and the Pork Producers — The Humane Society of the U.S. has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the National Pork Producers Council sold its “Pork, The Other White Meat” marketing slogan and then used the proceeds to fund a lobbying campaign. 

The HSUS claims the NPPC sold its slogan to the National Pork Board for $60 million, paid for with money from the pork check-off. The HSUS says the NPPC then used the proceeds to pay for lobbying.

Federal regulations do not allow commodity check-off money to be used for lobbying.

This is similar to the suit filed by a Kansas cattleman that attempts to limit the way beef check-off money is spent.

Why Not a Grain Reserve? — Frederick Kaufman writes in the Los Angeles Times that the country needs to build a strategic grain reserve. Why? Kaufman writes: 

“Now, as the United States must confront climate change, commodity markets riddled by speculation, increased import costs, hosts of regional conflicts and the return of international grain tariffs and export bans, we have put our faith entirely in transnational agribusiness and the global grain market….

“No one has to remind presidential candidates that a nation’s food supply is an essential element of national security. But the intricacies of commodities regulations and the sticky politics associated with biofuels, climate change and international grain markets may lead both candidates to overlook a time-tested way to sidestep the next food crisis. Despite the weather, the weevils, the mandates and the speculators, there is a way to blunt the ravages of drought and market greed. Bad weather need not guarantee food inflation. The sure path to national food security is a national grain reserve.”

Auburn ag economist Bob Taylor tells us a “the sure path to low farm income is a national grain reserve. There is a strong inverse relationship between farm prices and stock levels. A policy that promotes high grain reserves as a way to achieve food security leads to farm prices insufficient to support famers.”

The Q Factor — A Washington Post writer tells why BBQ awareness will be key to who wins the Presidency. 

Ownership to Boost Productivity — North Korea may allow farmers to keep their surplus food to sell or barter. 

The country is trying to boost production at its collective farms. The country’s new leadership figures giving farmers some incentives to produce more might be a way.

Took ’em long enough.

No Farm Bill Best — The Washington Post editorial page writes that “no farm bill at all might be better than a bad bill.” 

Answering to the Farm Bureau — The Obama and Romney campaigns have answered a questionnaire about farms and ag policy put out by the Farm Bureau. You can read their responses here

The Risk of Slow Rural Broadband — Britain’s Country Land and Business Association is warning that limited access to broadband in rural areas is putting economic development at risk. 

The association says broadband “acts as an economic driver for rural businesses,” but that between 15 and 20 percent of people still lack adequate speeds.

“Broadband should make it easier for rural businesses to compete on an equal footing with their urban counterparts. However, the lack of an infrastructure for fixed-line broadband simply accentuates the rural-urban digital divide,” the CLA said.

The Rural Poll That Wasn’t — You can count on folks at The Onion to be snotty.

We released a poll yesterday saying rural voters preferred Mitt Romney. Today, the Onion runs a (satirical) short story headlined: “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama.” 

 

 

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