Egalitarian, not elitist…

val/ January 14, 2010/ Farm/

The American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman gave the keynote address at a Farm Bureau conference in Seattle earlier this week. The text of his speech is here.

Wow. Talk about being divisive. It seems to me that the FB Prez just issued a call to arms (literally?) for Farm Bureau members. Apparently those of us promoting alternative agriculture are now two-faced “adversaries” and “extremists” hell bent on destroying all those nice salt of the earth farm families who are just doing their darned-est to feed the world. Oh yes, and we’re working on our “elitist power grab”. (Because there is so much money and power to be gained through farming…duh!) Oh, and did you catch that we are apparently morally bankrupt because we dare to question whether industrial agriculture methods are really the best way to feed the world?

Of course, the Farm Bureau is doing precisely what they are accusing us of doing: dividing farmers by trying to scare its members into thinking that their way of life is being oppressed by people who are actually on their side.

This reminds me of what happened here in the NW during the collapse of the logging industry. The reality was that logging at current levels was not sustainable, but rather than admit that the system was flawed, it was easier and more convenient to blame environmentalists for the collapse in the timber industry. This “blame the messenger” mentality is useful in setting the stage for the “us vs. them” debate.

“…The days of their elitist power grabs are over.”

Again, Stillman is actually accusing us of something of which his industry is guilty. Big Ag is the “elitist” group… they are the ones who like our ag system the way it is: run by an exclusive group of industry heads and lobbyists, with hardly any money trickling down to the people who actually grow the food. The spirit behind alternative agriculture is actually the opposite of elite: it’s egalitarian (which means that it’s based on a “belief in equal economic, social, political and civil rights for all people”).

No, this labeling of alternative agriculture as “elitist” is simply industrial ag proponents trying to frame the debate. Their frame looks like this: “Alternative ag proponents don’t carry about feeding the hungry… they just want their $8 tomatoes and fancy foods. They don’t care if the price of food is too expensive for some people. We actually care about feeding the poor, and through technology, we can do so.”

As someone in the alternative ag movement, I would frame our position this way: “We want our food to be safe, healthy and nutritious. We want all farmers and farm workers to make a living wage. We want the earth to be utilized in a way that maintains and enhances its ability to produce food indefinitely. We want all people everywhere to have the ability to purchase and/or produce food that is nutritious and affordable.”

Obviously, those sentiments are more egalitarian than elitist. And I’m not sure exactly what power we’re supposedly grabbing? Is it the consumer dollars that are being spent directly on food at farmers’ markets and in CSAs? Are we supposed to feel guilty that so many young people are excited about making a living by growing food and selling that food directly to customers?

“Our adversaries are skillful at taking advantage of our politeness. Publicly, they call for friendly dialogue while privately their tactics are far from that.”

Peronally, I’m unclear about these tactics of which he speaks. Too bad he doesn’t cite any examples. Maybe I’ll try to come up with some…

Let’s see, is it that we’re working with government agencies and non-profits to help low-income families get access to fresh, healthy foods? Is it that we’re speaking out about the epidemic of childhood obesity? Is it that we’re talking about the connections between diet and health? Is it that we’re buying farmland and converting it to organic acreage? Is it that we’re encouraging the increase in the number of local farmers’ markets around the country? Or maybe that we’re forming work groups to talk about how to navigate a bureaucracy with regulations that are based on the industrial ag system? Or that we’re tired of hearing about food recalls every other week? Or perhaps just that we’re here, and we don’t seem to be going away?

Make no mistake… this should not be an “us” vs “them” debate. Alternative ag proponents are on the same side as the farmers, even those in the Farm Bureau. In fact, many of us are farmers. (And some of us are in the Farm Bureau!) And we are all consumers of food.

No, this “you’re either with us or against us” mentality is being promulgated by the Industrial Ag executives and shareholders who feel their bottom line being threatened by the integrity, ingenuity and wisdom of a growing movement of people who want safe and healthy food. Big Ag – and yes, I’m using labels since they fit – wants people to believe that it’s all just about happy chickens and fancy tomatoes for us.

Perhaps we are guilty of a power grab. We do want it all… happy chickens (and cows!), happy consumers, and happy farmers.


  1. Guilty here too! We have a neighbor who likes to short out our electric fence to mess up our grazing rotation. He actually makes a full-time job of it. And the sad part? He is a farmer with cattle. I always wonder if he spent that much mental energy on his own operation how much more successful he would be. Oh, and he always takes down the back fence, and he must scratch his head in wonderment because the cows never go back to the previous paddock 🙂

    Power grab indeed – great post Val!

  2. wow thank you for this post ! this is a very important discussion esp given the farms conference and the farm reclamation act with FoFF in Salem the following day … you guys going???

  3. I had no idea that living healthy was such a “scandal” to the American Agriculture business (didn’t know the term elitist could be applied here)… Thanks for the information — all the more reason to buy responsibly. Caroline, Pilates Generation

  4. Our motivations are the same (healthy food, happy chickens, etc) but for us there isn’t any money involved. We simply trade some of our $8.00 tomatoes with whatever $8.00 produce our friends are growing. I guess that makes us socialists too.

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