Orchardists represent a sliver of American agriculture. Most of our nation’s farmers grow field crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. Many raise livestock, for meat or dairy. Others in the produce sector tend fields of potatoes or carrots or lettuce. All in all, fewer than 2 percent of our nation’s 308 million people can claim direct ties to production agriculture.
Until recently, questions from city people about agriculture only touched lightly on farming methods. After all, until about a century ago, many urban and suburban residents had grown up on farms and, if they had not, were likely to have near relatives still working the land. Whether from direct knowledge or from a residual of goodwill, people in more populated areas tended to support farm policy as developed by those active in agriculture. Agriculture was inward looking, and disputes that arose tended to be along commodity lines cattle versus sheep for grazing rights, or geographical distinctions (My state’s potatoes are the best!) as opposed to being driven by national party politics.
It was, until recently, almost universally accepted that it was good national policy to aggressively pursue expanded agricultural exports; that the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals had ushered in greater productivity while reducing the need for such mindless work as weeding; that comparative advantage did exist (it making sense to grow vegetables in the Salinas Valley of California while Iowa focused on corn); that it was a positive to pursue economies of scale; that food-safety considerations could be left to the one closest to the growing of the product; that refrigeration and national transportation systems were a benefit both to consumers and suppliers; that farming helped not violated the environment, and that the work of farmers was entitled to respect and appreciation.
There is now under way a sharp shift in public discussions affecting agriculture. No longer can we expect farm policy to be left almost solely to those with direct roots in agriculture.
While at first disturbing, there are positives to this change. People are paying close attention to what farmers do. There is a new recognition of the importance of agriculture to some of the major issues of the day; from global warming, to biotechnology, to immigration reform, to water availability, to food safety, and to providing the means of meeting the nutritional needs of an ever-increasing population. But also there are those who label modern-day farming with such pejorative labels as “corporate agribusiness” or “industrialized” or “monoculture agricultural systems.” To these zealous critics, globalization is bad. Food should be grown locally, or scorned. Synthetic agricultural chemicals are invariably harmful. No animal should be raised to be eaten for food. Irrigation and power dams on rivers should be blown away. Cultivated land should be returned to its native state.
Many who are critical are driven by the romantic dream of returning to pleasant villages surrounded by small, diversified agriculture. An ideal vision of American society as exemplified by the thinking of Thomas Jefferson: a man whose own agricultural enterprise was heavily reliant both on tobacco (which played out the soil, while killing its end users) and slave labor. In the end, Mr. Jefferson’s farm was a failure economically. (There is a reason why Thomas Jefferson was forced to sell his private collection of books to the United States, an act in 1815 that formed the early nucleus of today’s magnificent Library of Congress.)
Whatever his commercial failings as a farmer, Thomas Jefferson loved agriculture. And he certainly knew the importance of being directly engaged in the public issues of his day.
Following this notable example, it is essential for present-day agriculturalists to actively engage in these new fields of debatethe continued use of agricultural chemicals, the adoption of new technologies (e.g., GMOs), consumer food safety, carbon footprint, et ceterain order to present our views and defend our values. Those in today’s agriculture must not just engage one another at the local market, crossroads coffee shop, or county fairgrounds. We now must aggressively lay out our thoughtful arguments and defend our farming practices to those well beyond that imaginary high boundary fence that has traditionally shielded agriculture from the turbulent concerns of the outer world.
The critical battles of ideas are being fought nationally in the general media, in books on New York Times bestseller lists, in articles in academic journals, in urban legislative settings, and in the blogosphere: wherever opinion and information is instantaneously exchanged in this brave new Internet world.
A lucky industry
In some ways, our sliver of agriculture is lucky. We do not have to endure attacks by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on livestock practices. Our fruits are not viewed as a dietary problem, as are corn syrup and sugar. (Apples, pears, and cherries are healthy!) Trees are recognized as good things in terms of the global climate. Our many orchards and scattered packing houses are still mostly family-owned and relatively small in size.
But as for other issues, such as agricultural chemical usage, water, long-distance marketing, labor, and food safety, we are on the front lines of often acrimonious national debates.
Individual farmers and the agricultural organizations representing them need to mobilize and engage in these often earnest, sometimes fractious arguments. This will not be easy. An orchardist wants to grow fruit and be left alone, not verbally duel in public with a strident advocate of views hostile to his or her life’s work.
However, our fellow citizens need to be made comfortable with how commercial tree fruit is grown, harvested, packed, stored, and transported to markets scattered over the world. Their legitimate public policy concerns and personal fears deserve reasonable answers.
We are not alone. We have many allies who share our values of taking good care of the land and waterand honor both a consumer’s freedom of choice and an independent farmer’s right to produce.