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There's more to ag's story than some are saying

Published on February 6, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on March 11, 2010 3:29AM

Erick Haakenson

Erick Haakenson

For the Capital Press

A recent editorial (Jan. 22's "It's Time for Farmers to Tell Ag's Story") cited with approval Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman's call for a "new attitude"-- a get-tough attitude -- toward "critics, extremist animal rights organizations and environmental activists."

Certainly one can understand Mr. Stallman's somewhat theatrical appeal to his own members at the recent Farm Bureau conference. But most of us expect and hope for a newspaper editorial board to look more to the consideration of evidence and arguments than to merely rehearse the rhetoric of one who is appealing to a group that is already convinced. Not everyone is convinced, and it will take more than a new attitude to convince those of us who are not.

The editorial mentions several times the need to get the facts out, to "explain the whole truth," to "tell ag's story." I applaud that, but my question, after reading the statements from the Farm Bureau conference and after reading the editorial supportive of those statements is, "What is this story, what is the whole truth that conventional farmers need to tell?"

There is one line in the editorial that could be considered an answer to my question, and it bears consideration: "Never have fewer people produced so much food in so great a variety." If that were the "whole truth," it would be a great story indeed. But if you have to mask what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story," and if many of the people you are trying to convince know that you are masking the whole truth, what has really been accomplished?

What's being masked, by the way, in the story line you offer, is that commodities produced today are done so by means of an exponential increase in the use of fossil fuel. It is true that it also takes exponentially fewer farmers to grow this food. But are you applauding the fact that we have simply replaced farmers with fossil fuel? Is this really the story you want to take to the public?

Is the public not aware that:

* There is a limited and diminishing amount of fossil fuel?

* That industries heavily dependent on fossil fuel contribute disproportionally to the ever-increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere?

* That the agricultural chemicals used to allow "fewer farmers than ever to grow more food" are detrimentally impacting our ground water, streams, rivers and oceans?

* That these same chemicals, which are a part of the food we eat and the air we breathe, are compromising the health of many in our nation?

* That soil erosion in the U.S. due to mono-cropping and other practices of conventional farming continue to deplete our fertility reserves in a way that is not sustainable?

* That with the unemployment rate now at 10 percent, maybe our growing population, along with our environment, might be better served by a return to simpler, healthier and more sustainable agricultural practices that are people dependent rather than fossil fuel and chemical dependent?

Please don't say, "We can't go back;" there are too many farmers proving that it can be done. And please don't say "If we do go back, we can't feed the world." When we again face huge price hikes on fossil fuel products -- fuel, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides -- as we inevitably will, and when research reveals more about the impacts of monoculture, chemical-based fertilizers, GMO production, pesticide and herbicide residues on our food, and the impacts of the massive use of fossil fuel in the production of food -- then we will learn that we can, in fact, feed the world farming organically; there will be no alternative.

If the energy that goes into chemical farming were directed to organic farming, we could both feed the world and employ the world. What we could not do is satisfy the insatiable demand of that small segment of our population that controls and profits from the brokering of agricultural commodities. It's not primarily farmers that have profited from the industrialization of agriculture.

What I've cited above could be stated more powerfully, I'm sure, by someone who doesn't spend most of his time with his hands in the soil. But what is roughly presented here is a body of substantive evidence. The evidence coalesces into a strong argument which is simply ignored by the story that "never have fewer people produced so much food in such great variety." The public knows too much to accept this shallow story as a surrogate for evidence.

If conventional farmers have another story that I've missed, I'd like to hear it. I understand that a Farm Bureau conference and a newspaper largely directed to conventional farmers may not need to tell that other story -- presumably conventional farmers know the story. But someone has to say what the story is, and how it trumps the arguments and evidence cited above. Perhaps that can be done. But it seems to me that there's not enough smoke to hide the fire of well-documented ills that have, though unintentional, resulted from conventional farming methods. It will take more than simplistic stories that amount to little more than cheerleading to dissuade the growing rebellion of an educated public.

The best option I can imagine, and the one I would like to see, is a frank admission by groups like the Farm Bureau and the editorial board of the Capital Press that there is a need to modify currently accepted practices of conventional agriculture; and along with this admission the expression of willingness to discuss how the industry could transition out of those practices and thereby begin to ameliorate the damage that has already been done. With what is known even now, endorsing a "get tough" attitude rather than engaging in constructive dialogue is to introduce a level of culpability that conventional farmers do not now deserve.

Erick Haakenson operates Jubilee Biodynamic Farm in Carnation, Wash.


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