What Will We Pay For?

My Generation

Food and agriculture – with no shortage of opinions thereof – are all over social media today.

Published on: October 26, 2010
There seems to be a lot of conversation today throughout various social media regarding family farms, and sustainability, and factory farms. Or maybe it's just the people I hang with. That's a possibility.

Regardless, after reading an excellent blog from the Illinois Farm Bureau this morning, and replying to a North Dakota reader who took issue with my October column on farmer profitability, I got to take part in an interesting Facebook conversation.

A farmer in Kentucky posted this morning that he was reading Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book "
criticizing 'factory farms' (whatever that is - no one really seems to know) for driving people away from farming. Is that the case, or is it just that fewer people really want to do what we do?"

No fewer than 16 people responded, with the first commenting: "I don't think fewer want to do it, I just think that factory farms are making it harder for the true farmers to compete. Kind of like how Mom and Pop stores can't compete with Wal-Mart. I think it's important to remember that just because something's cheaper, that doesn't necessarily make it the best choice."

I found this interesting and asked what the difference was between factory farms and true farmers. She hasn't responded yet. I offered up the link to the IFB blog.

Another responded that farmers were being regulated off the farm, and that small farmers were "forced to go renegade" and sell unregulated raw products off the farm.

Several others commented that it wasn't that fewer people wanted to farm, it was that fewer people were willing to do the hard work involved in agricultural production. "Farming has always very, very hard work, and frankly, most people don't want to work that hard. As more and more people are generations removed from the farm, they tend to think about farming in some romantic, bucolic sense, which NEVER was the reality of it."

Exactly. Which reminded me of this painting I saw for sale on Etsy. It's a lovely painting and all, but check out the description: "This Rural landscape reflects a quiet calm of a simpler life."

Right-o. One where the cows don't get out, and lambs don't come in the middle of the night, and the combine never breaks down and makes Dad miss his kids' baseball game. The electricity never goes off, the water pump never freezes and the kids don't ride the bus for more than an hour.

This is not reality! Neither is the notion that a backyard gardening, local food mentality will sustain us. I'm all for backyard gardening and eating food that's grown nearby – really, that's nothing new to farm folks. But the people who want to take our entire food production system back to a romanticized version of agriculture are doing us all a massive disservice. The Facebook commentators pointed that out as well.

I loved this very thoughtful commentator's response:

"It seems 'factory farm' is like other animal rights terms: 'whatever I disagree with.' The small farms – 'mom & pop' if you will - CAN survive and thrive IF consumers finance it - and by action, they don't. By action they want the cheapest they can find, with the most convenience. Some say otherwise but the fact is, if people put their money where their ideals are, the factory farms they disagree with will have a much smaller piece of the market…The fact is what is convenient is what sells. I've advertised outdoor eggs, which many say is the way to go. They are $2, which is competitive with 'factory farm' eggs from the store. By action what do people buy? Eggs next door at Dollar General!"

As a society, we're talking a lot about our food supply, but we're sure not ready to put our money where our mouth is.