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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Farming for the Future Conference Brian Snyder, Executive Director February 3, 2012

If you have been following my columns in our bi-monthly newsletter Passages, you probably noticed that I’ve been a bit grumpy lately. Maybe “grumpy” is not the right word, but something like “impatient” or “urgently pushy” gets closer to the reality. Sometimes it just feels like plain old “desperation,” to be truthful about it. Let’s just call it my “persistent uneasiness” for now, and I can assure you there are plenty of good reasons for all of us to be feeling this way. There is otherwise much cause to be celebrating right now, including the achievement of twenty years of PASA as an organization, at this, our twenty-first annual event, and the growth of the sustainable food movement in general, to the point where sustainability itself is now a mainstream idea. But there are storm clouds just ahead that we would do well not to ignore. In my newsletter columns I’ve talked about an increasing, and in some ways necessary divergence of worldviews that now dominates our public discussions about food and farming. I have likened that chasm to the scientific dispute over whether the Sun revolves around the Earth, or vice versa, that once took about 300 years, and not just a little violent persecution, to resolve. In our case the central conflict is over the role of nature in our farming systems . . . is it a friend or foe? For most of us here, it’s almost unthinkable that anyone would consider nature as the enemy of farming, but that’s pretty much the status quo attitude with the dominant, industrial paradigm that now governs most of our food production. Nature always seems to get it wrong, and must be supplemented with various chemicals, trampled by ginormous machinery and even manipulated at the level of genetic structure in order to make it do what we want. And then all too often it adapts, and ends up dashing our best intentions anyway . . . at least that’s how the industrialists understand the world. Of course, we know different. We know that the tendency to diversify and adapt is exactly the thing that nature does right, and that we would do well to emulate it in that regard. We know that by observing very carefully what happens on our farms and in the different ecological systems in which our farms are situated, we can minimize the hazards and maximize the benefits of our farming practices to the economic, environmental and ethical contexts in which we operate. We know that within all life forms resides the capacity not only to survive, but to prevail, and even to

heal when things do not go as we had planned. We know that the most successful farms will adhere to nature, not try to defeat it. But I have some bad news. With all the progress we’ve seen over the past two decades, we are not currently winning the day. We are losing ground, and the reason, I believe, is twofold. First, we are aiming at a moving target. Whether we are talking about economics, the environment or the health and welfare of our people – especially when considered on a global scale – things are getting worse, and by some estimates, there is not much time to turn the ship around. This is not a new idea to PASA members, or anyone who has been coming to our conferences over the years, because a host of keynote speakers have reminded us over and over again what’s really at stake. And as full as this room generally is, there are just not enough farmers hearing this message from us, or anywhere else. The second, and to me more ominous reason, is that the other side – that is, the forces of industrialism that benefit from the status quo – are getting more organized in their efforts to avoid change, or at least to resist change that will come quickly enough to make a real difference. I have written before about the formation of an industry-led group called the USFRA, which stands for the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, that burst onto the scene this past summer pledging to spend $30M/year “to lead the dialogue on how food is grown and raised in America” according to Bob Stallman, who chairs the USFRA and is also president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. As you would no doubt surmise, this new group was formed to answer the criticisms leveled at industrial farming coming from within the sustainable food system movement. You would also not be surprised to find that the effort is largely being funded by commodity checkoff dollars – some of which are contributed by our members – as well as hefty donations from Monsanto and other corporate players. So in other words, if you are paying into a checkoff system, you are potentially also helping to support messaging that works against the marketing of your own, sustainably-raised products. This helps to reinforce the impression many of our farmers get that the commodity checkoff system is actually a legalized form of organized crime. And if that doesn’t get your attention, maybe hearing about what the USFRA advises farmers to say to consumers will. In a training presentation acquired by some friends and forwarded to me, I was astounded to find that this new organization is advising farmers to talk with the public regarding just about everything except for how they farm. One slide in particular advises them to avoid what they called “language landmines” and technical “process-oriented” language. That same slide is specific in recommending that farmers not use words like Technology, Innovation, GMOs, Antibiotics, Hormones, Pesticides, Fertilizer and Nitrogen. On another slide they talk about ditching the technical talk and, instead, using language that is more “natural,” including words like preventing, nurturing, resilient, healthy and – this is the kicker – better tasting. They recommend that farmers not talk about big, lofty ideas like feeding the world anymore, and also

emphasize the need to adopt a strategy of continuous improvement, which is something they rather directly ripped off from the language of sustainable certification. So here is the gist of the good advice for farmers from the USFRA . . . don’t talk to consumers about what you’re doing on your farms; ask them how they feel about their food. Well, you might be wondering how I’m able to have any optimism about the future at all. Sometimes I wonder that too. But it’s really not all that difficult to maintain hope in the face of dire global circumstances and an organized, industry-fueled disinformation campaign . . . because every day on this job I get to talk with farmers who are proud as can be to talk about what they’re doing on their farms! Now, isn’t it nice that we belong to a community that likes to talk about their farming practices? At PASA, we realize that every conversation counts, and we encourage you to use process-oriented language whenever possible. And my other reason for optimism is that every day we find more giants in this community on whose shoulders we can stand in order to see a brighter future coming. Sitting among us today are many examples of the giants I am referring to. We have featured such individual farmers and businessmen and women over the years as speakers and award winners, and we have had several on the PASA board of directors. We will once again be honoring a couple leaders of this caliber tomorrow as part of our PASA-bilities award series. But today, I’ll just give you two other very current examples. Nearly a year ago, our retiring president Kim Seeley was in Philadelphia to speak with an audience on the effects and potential dangers of drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale. On his way home the next morning he got a call that his family’s farm store and dairy processing plant was engulfed in flames, and of course all he could do was continue the trip home to see what was left. Today, they are nearly ready to fully reopen in a much improved, more sustainable type of facility, and this summer – on the 4th of July to be exact – Milky way farm will hold a formal grand re-opening on the 50th anniversary of their original opening day. No one would have blamed them to shut down permanently, and take their farm in other directions, but it was their concern for the community they live in that counted most – “Where will they buy their dairy products?” is a question I heard repeatedly as they considered how decisions would affect their customers. Here’s another example. Just last fall, our good friends at the Rodale Institute hosted their inaugural Organic Pioneer Awards banquet, and among the very first award winners were PASA members Drew and Joan Norman, who operate One Straw Farm in Whitehall, MD. They can be very proud of that achievement, and also proud to be operating one of the nation’s largest and most innovative CSA operations. But that’s not enough for them. Just last week they voluntarily surrendered their organic certification, because the NOP has so far refused to approve the mulch product they use on the farm that is made of 100% biodegradable, non-GMO, corn-based material. You see, they just couldn’t stand to continue filling their local landfill with dumpster

loads of the petroleum-based plastic they had used with NOP approval in the past. For them, this is a matter of principle . . . they are not willing to just accept the status quo, even of the organic program, and instead are willing to lead the way in insisting on continuous improvement! Those of you in this audience who are just beginning to farm, or are hoping someday soon to be farming, would do well to take heed of the example set by many PASA members who have come before you. Yes, there will be many hardships involved in running your farms . . . nature may be our “friend,” but due to our unfortunate prior negligence, this friend is becoming more erratic and demanding all the time. And there’s nothing easy about selling your products once you’ve figured out how to produce them. All of us in this organization commit ourselves to helping you as best we can with these parts of the process. But the really hard part will come when it’s your turn to make the tough decisions that will take this entire community into places we’ve never been before, and help us break down the barriers to a more sustainable future that are being erected every day by the defenders of industry and the status quo. We will be with you then, too, but you will be leading the way. One of the biggest challenges we will face is the one I alluded to at the beginning . . . how to get the word to all those farmers out there who have not had an opportunity to hear it, or have so far refused to listen. I believe it’s true that PASA, and other organizations like this, are already speaking publicly on behalf of at least 80% of the farmers in this country, even though most of them do not know it, and may not understand just how much trouble they are in. We must work hard to inform them, and to welcome them into this community, because without a faster pace of change, we will all fail in our endeavor to head-off catastrophe in economic and environmental terms, and in our efforts to serve the needs of a fast-growing world population. You, the farmers of the future, are engaged in the process of creating a new food system with every bold action you take, sometimes running with, and at other times against, the prevailing current of laws and regulations. In this PASA family, we all stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us, and with that special opportunity comes the equivalent responsibility to farm not just for today, but to cultivate the versatility and resilience that will make farming for the future, and even the future itself, a PASA-bility for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

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