Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Modern Farmer and the Ideological Agricultural Divide

There is reason to celebrate. The second issue of Modern Farmer is here! My husband picked it up at Whole Foods on Monday. (It is also available at Tractor Supply. I could subscribe, but buying magazines at Tractor Supply with my chicken feed sounds so cool. The first issue of Modern Farmer made me very happy.

The two places I am most likely to buy my copy of Modern Farmer--Whole Foods on one end and Tractor Supply on the other--are quite telling about the range of consumers bound to read the magazine. 

Yesterday's New York Times piece on Modern Farmer, while mostly positive, got one thing wrong. While acknowledging Modern Farmer's unique aesthetic, the piece claimed that “articles report on straight agricultural topics more often found in farming publications like the 111-year-old Successful Farming.” While there may be occasional overlap between the two publications, I doubt there will be many people who read both, due to the fundamental ideological divide in agriculture today.

On the one hand you have the agri-intellectuals (a term of contempt in some circles) or what I call food ideologues, and on the other you have industrial--or conventional, or Big--agribusiness (often the object of my contempt). But if I’m honest, this divide deeply concerns me. 

I don’t pretend to be beyond this divide--as I have described it, one side is made of people (albeit ideologues), and the other is an abstraction: monolithic business. Indeed, many modern agricultural problems stem from greed, and greed on the scale we’re talking is only possible at an impersonal level. (And I’ve tipped my hand with “many modern agricultural problems stem from greed,” because there are many who believe that industrial agriculture is feeding the world. I'm not even going to address that here. I recognize that most of the people driving the combines and sprayers and using mass quantities of commercial fertilizer are decent people. The greed I’m talking about is more subtle, more insidious, and usually attributable to people who spend little time on farms.)

When I moved to this rural address, I automatically started receiving--I stress that I did not subscribe--three eye-opening publications: the aforementioned Successful Farming (a waxy periodical aimed at conventional farmers), AgriNews (a no-nonsense paper reporting on drought conditions and the trend toward cover crops), and Beyond the Bean (straight propaganda put out by the United Soybean Board). All of these have shown me what kinds of concerns industrial farmers have, and there is a broad range. Contrary to what many agri-intellectuals assume, many of them are concerned with soil health, nitrogen runoff, and a few dozen other environmental and health issues.

Still, it was all too clear what Successful Farming was about. Each issue focused mostly on maximizing profits. Sometimes, and definitely in the long run, that aligns elegantly with helping the environment. In the short run, however, planting corn on corn (not rotating with soybeans) because the price of corn is just too sweet this year is considered good advice. 

That’s not the kind of advice you would find in Modern Farmer, which features highly diversified farms. I mean Old MacDonald farms, with a moo-moo here and a cluck-cluck there, but also with robotic scarecrows and Wi-Fi-enabled weather sensors. The modern farm is exciting, innovative, dirty, rewarding, and possibly devastating. Neoclassical and wildly experimental at once--exactly what we need right now. 

Both Successful Farming and Modern Farmer might feature farming apps for your phone. Successful Farming might describe an app that retrieves soil survey data--very cool and very practical. Modern Farmer describes iCow, an animal husbandry app that has gained popularity in Kenya--possibly practical, but wicked cool and with a global focus. Successful Farming magazine profiles mostly white men from the Midwest. Modern Farmer’s Issue #2 opens with a piece about a Lebanese farmer watching Syrian refugees plant eggplant. Sure, there are plenty of white people in Modern Farmer. But there are also profiles of farms staffed by people as diverse as what is grown on them. 

I celebrate Modern Farmer for straddling this divide between food ideologues and actual farmers. Food ideologues are both my favorite and my least favorite people: they are the optimists, the hobby farmers, the intellectuals, but they are often also the most radical and the least flexible (ironically, I mean the least intellectually flexible). Let me be clear: by “actual farmers” I do not mean the guys who carpet most of the county with corn and soybeans every year. I do mean people who work the land and get dirty--not just agri-intellectuals. There is nothing wrong with people who live in the city, read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or The Omnivore’s Dilemma and grow cilantro in their windowsill. I was that person--still can’t claim to be much more, but I am a work-in-progress. Many people are not able to do much more than have an awareness about our industrial food system and fulfill Wendell Berry’s suggestion (1989) that we “participate in food production to the extent that [we] can.” 

Some people are taking growing food for yourself a step further. It is the first time in human history when more than half the world’s population live in cities than in rural areas. American farmers are getting older on average (pushing 60). To combat these trends, there are grassroots organizations like The Greenhorns (described on their site as a “working to recruit, promote and support the growing tribe of new agrarians”) and publications like Modern Farmer.

Courtney Cowgill, a farmer who has written about farming for The Associated Press, is quoted in the New York Times piece on Modern Farmer
“I know they’re trying to reach people like me and the kind of hobbyists and the people who are just kind of enamored with the idea of farming,” … To appeal to the person who wants to romanticize farming and the person who is knee deep in turkey droppings “is hard, and I think they’re balancing that,” she said.
That seems about right. Modern Farmer speaks to those of us who are earnest about walking the walk. Those of us slowly gaining experience with something like actual farming who see a complicated road ahead. 

I have oversimplified and I want to list caveats at every turn. But if I ever want to stop writing, I need a pithy exit: I am still learning.