When voices for a sustainable food system are loud enough to be seen as threats, they can pat themselves on the back, at least a little. Formation of the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) shows some nervous reaction in the big-agriculture ranks. Major farm associations are circling the wagons to fight off critics. The alliance’s introductory video calls for farmers and ranchers to come together: “Let’s change the perception of modern farming and ranching from negative to one that inspires a nation.”
Behind the the calls for “a collective voice” are some familiar faces. The major commodity associations are there, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Sheep Industry, United Egg Producers, U.S. Grain Council, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the Dairy Farmers of America. John Deere and DuPont have signed onto the Premier Partner Advisory Group.
American Farm Bureau (AFB) president Bob Stallman is one of the founding members. In a speech he gave at the AFB convention in January 2010, he said, “A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule. The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over.”
The “elitist power grabs” he was referring to were such pesky things as climate legislation. In the July 25, 2011, FB News (AFB’s newspaper), other nuisances were named, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Is USFRA a Threat to Small Farmers and Activists?
In reporting on the new group, the Financial Times spoke with three people USFRA would see as among production agriculture’s critics: Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms and Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition. All are proponents of sustainable farming. None is included in the USFRA’s plans to “lead the dialogue and answer Americans’ questions about how we raise our food—while being stewards of the environment, responsibly caring for our animals and maintaining strong business and communities.”
While Ozer was simply quoted as saying people care about how their food is produced and are asking questions, the other two had more skeptical comments. Salatin called the USFRA campaign “laughable.” Kastel said production agriculture “is frightened about the marketplace and concerned about more regulatory constraint. They are afraid the ugly stories out there are tarnishing their reputation.”
The Financial Times pegs USFRA’s marketing campaign at some $30 million a year, but it is too early to tell how successful it will be. Farmers and ranchers tend to be an independent lot. What unifies the member groups at this point is a sense of being under siege because of increasing concerns about our global food system.
What is likely to divide them, from each other and their industry partners, are some of the issues that cannot be swept away with a marketing campaign. The spread of superweeds, overuse of antibiotics, loss of soil and soil quality and the effects of exposure to agricultural chemicals are only four on a growing list of serious problems related to our current model of industrial agriculture.
The family farmers I’ve known over the years, from a woman on Vancouver Island who sold a few thousand dollars of organic vegetables each year to a cattleman in Texas whose ranch was a day’s drive from one side to the other, work hard and and are proud of the food they produce. As climate change, drought, environmental degradation, rising costs and burgeoning population take their toll, farmers and ranchers of all stripes will find they have more in common with each other than with the corporations who have sold us an unsustainable vision. We have a planetary debt to pay, and Mother Nature is calling on us to resolve it.
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Photo from USDA Agricultural Research Service