Speak Your Piece: New York Times Writes About Food Without Farmers
When the New York Times wrote about food, the editors consulted web site designers, filmmakers and authors. Maybe next time they'll talk to a farmer. Or maybe two.
The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday was all about food. An ear of corn is exploding on the cover, kernels flying at you like a Kansas version of the Big Bang. "Food Fights!" is the name of the issue.
I liked some of the articles — especially the Paul Greenberg piece on catfish — but as I read one after another I got the inkling that something was missing. What was it? Oh, yeah, what's missing are….
In nearly 100 pages of articles about how food should be grown, picked, prepared, distributed, eaten — even an article about restaurant tipping — farmers and rural Americans in general are barely visible. I read suggestions about what farmers ought to do and how food should be grown, but scarcely a word from the people who grow it or the communities that support agriculture.
To be fair, on last page of the magazine Doug Fine reports from his 41-acre "ranch" in New Mexico, where he's been scratching out a living for a couple of years growing vegetables, tending chickens and goats and writing a book about "his attempt to purge petroleum from his life." Fine tells us he has to drive 45 minutes to town, where he shops at a "crunchy organic co-op" and that his crop this year was wiped out by hail.
And in some group pictures of "Food Fighters," (described as "young leaders who are changing the way we eat (and drink)") there is a nice shot of some young New Yorkers who have taken over a small farm in Valle Crucis, a second-home magnet in the mountains of North Carolina. In the entire magazine, there is exactly one picture of the people who work the fields, four young farm workers in Florida who organized immigrants around Immakalee and forced fast food companies to increase the per pound rate paid for picking tomatoes. They get a paragraph.
Mostly, though, the "Food Fighters" are New Yorkers, filmmakers or authors. The Times Magazine always has an interview in the first few pages of the issue. In this special issue on food and farming, the Times interviews a filmmaker (Robert Kenner) on "why agribusiness is our greatest threat." Instead of interviewing a farmer (or a local banker or implement dealer or poultry raiser) about the power of agribusiness, the Times talks to somebody who makes movies about farmers.
And that's the point. When the Times hunts out those to explain agriculture and rural life, they look for filmmakers, authors, web site designers and theorists. (There's nobody from Nebraska in the mag, but there is a nice photo of Anna Lappe, the book-writing daughter of Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet.) Those are the people given the authority to speak about the future of agriculture and rural America. Farmers don't really have a voice. Farmers are simply the good and nameless people out there (out yonder) who are to carry out the grand plans of others. The Times respects those who make media — articles, films, photos, websites — not those who make food.
University of California at Berkeley professor Michael Pollan wrote the longest article in the Food Fights! issue. The piece tells "what the next president can and should do to remake the way we grow and eat our food." Pollan knows his stuff and the article is filled with good advice, mandates and suggestions. The new president should begin what will be a 50-year project to remake agriculture. Pollan would rid the fields of petroleum based fertilizer. He would make farms more diverse with production aimed at local consumption. He would reuse food waste from the cities as compost and he would put bar codes on foods, so that "when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), it brings up on a screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced." If the chicken came from a CAFO (a confined animal feeding operation) the scanned bar code would fetch live pictures of the farm where the bird lived.
Well, all-righty. We've got detail.
Pollan has great ideas — such as allowing farmers to cure and sell their own meat and establishing smaller, regional meatpacking plants to encourage specialty meat production. He wants to reverse the flood of young people out of rural communities, to repopulate the countryside with more farm workers practicing a new kind of agriculture. All that's dandy, but what missing from Pollan's article is what's missing from the entire issue.
Humility. And any acknowledgement that the people living and working in rural communities might have a say in this five-decade project to remake rural America. Pollan writes in detail about what food ought to be served in the White House, but there is no place in the plan for farmers to talk back or for rural communities to have a role in plotting their futures. The notion is that the new president will order up changes in the way rural America goes about its business and rural Americans will comply.
It's not like farmers and rural residents are lacking for ideas or for gumption. There are meetings all over the country of farmers who are trying to regain control of the seed that grows their crops. Farmers organizations have tried to start the slaughter houses Pollan proposes. The ranchers with R-CALF have been single minded in their work to retain the markets that keep cattleraisers free from the kind of agribusiness control that rules the poultry and hog business. The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) has been battling meat company mergers, seed ownership, unfair trade laws and attempts to end the live auction of cattle. If the Times wanted "food fighters," they had to talk to some of the members of OCM — Mike Stumo, Randy Stevenson, Mike Callicrate, Fred Stokes, the Yonder's own Richard Oswald.
These folks don't need a leader and they certainly don't need somebody telling them what to do. They need friends who will help and who will take the time to listen.