When farmers and agribusiness leaders seethe over newspaper reporting of agriculture, I get a bit defensive. I want to defend my profession.
I spent my journalism career years as a newspaper reporter in Texas and Arizona. I had wanted to be a journalist likely from the first time I picked up a newspaper and found ink smeared on my fingers after reading through it. I was actually a newspaper carrier through high school and still laugh when I recall the dozens of times my district manager would find me sitting on a bundle of fresh Dallas Morning News editions at 5 a.m., reading the paper. “Throw the papers, Harry, and then read it!” All I have ever wanted to do is be a journalist because it seemed the most exciting profession in the world. To me it still is.
Fortunately, the principles of balanced, unbiased reporting were instilled in me by veteran journalists who valued those principles above all. It is not easy to keep personal bias out of a news article. I have written articles about real dunderhead newsmakers — be they mayor, sheriff, crook, politician, farmer, industry leader, or president. Yet, I worked hard to keep my bias out of those articles. Commentaries are different.
Without sounding too pious for my age, more than a few of the newspaper articles about agriculture, and many other subjects as well, seem to be written these days by reporters who apparently ignore basic principles. I am sure the writers are intelligent journalists who have somehow lost their principled way. At least I hope they someday will understand the principles of balanced, unbiased reporting if they stay in the business.
I will always be in awe of good journalism, be it a news article or a commentary. Philip Bowles of Bowles Farming, Dos Palos, Calif., is an avid, discerning reader who often shares what he uncovers. He e-mailed me an article he rightfully described as “refreshing.” It appeared in one of agriculture’s least loved newspapers. It is from Los Angeles Times Food Editor Russ Parsons, a newspaper journalist for 30 years. It is about what Parsons calls a “national conversation about food” that has become “two armed camps deeply suspicious of one another shouting past each other.”
“On the one side, the hard-line aggies seem convinced that a bunch of know-nothing urbanites want to send them back to Stone Age farming techniques. On the other side, there’s a tendency by agricultural reformers to lump together all farms (or at least those that aren’t purely organic, hemp-clad mom-and-pop operations) as thoughtless ravagers of the environment,” writes Parsons.
In the next decade Parsons would rather see “a more constructive give-and-take, the start of a true conversation.” He offers up a few ground rules for both farmer and urbanite to move that along.
Here they are:
• “Agriculture is a business. Farming without a financial motive is gardening. Not only do farmers have expenses to meet just like any other business, but they also need to be rewarded when they do good work. Any plan that places further demands on farmers without an offsetting profit incentive is doomed to fail.
• What’s past is past. Over the last 50 years, American farmers performed an agricultural miracle, all but eliminating hunger as a serious health issue in this country. But that battle has been won, and though those gains must be maintained, the demands of today — developing a system that delivers flavor as well as quantity and does it in an environmentally friendly way — are different.
• Food is not just a culinary abstraction. No matter how much you and I might appreciate the amazing bounty produced by talented, quality-driven farmers, we also have to acknowledge that sometimes food is well, just food. So when we start dreaming about how to make our epicurean utopia, we also have to keep in mind that our first obligation is to make sure that healthful, fresh food remains plentiful and inexpensive enough that anyone can afford it.
• There’s no free pass on progress. Just because you’ve always farmed a certain way does not mean you are owed the right to continue farming that way in the future. The days of a small or medium-sized farm making a decent profit growing one or two crops and marketing it through the traditional commodity route are long past. The world is changing, and those who can adapt are the ones who will be successful.
• The world is not black and white. The issues facing agriculture today are much more complicated than lining up behind labels such as “local” and “organic” no matter how praiseworthy they might seem in the abstract.
• No farm is an island. That’s not literally true, of course; there are several island farms in the Sacramento Delta. But even there, farmers have to remember they’re living in an ever-more crowded state where their actions affect others. Assuming that what happens on your land is nobody’s business but your own just doesn’t work anymore.
• Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Holding out for an unattainable dream may mean losing a chance at a more easily realized goal. At the same time, just because an idea may not be the perfect answer, it doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to it. A completely locavore diet is, well, loco, but buying as much locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables as you can is just common sense.
• Quality is more expensive than quantity. Farming fruits and vegetables that are not just healthful but also have great flavor takes a lot of time and work and usually means not growing as much as a neighbor who doesn’t focus on flavor. So when you’re shopping, don’t begrudge a good farmer a little higher price — that’s what it takes to keep him in business.
• You don’t climb a ladder starting at the top rung. In a system as complex as our food supply, change is evolutionary. Remember long-term goals, but focus on what’s immediately achievable. Any argument that begins, “All we have to do is rewrite the farm bill,” is probably decades, if not centuries, from reality. But there are plenty of small things we can do now to start us down that road. Don’t assume those who disagree with you are evil, stupid or greedy. And even when they are, that doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility for making a constructive and convincing argument.
• What’s political is also personal. If you believe in something, you should be willing to make sacrifices to support it, even if it’s expensive or inconvenient. Wailing about farmers who use pesticides and then balking at paying extra for organic produce is hypocritical because the yields in organic farming are almost always lower. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with doing the best you can whenever you can — as long as you’re willing to accept compromises from the other guy too.
• Finally, and most important: Beware the law of unintended consequences. Developing tasteless fruits and vegetables was not the goal of the last Green Revolution; it was a side effect of a system designed to eliminate hunger by providing plentiful, inexpensive food, but that also ended up rewarding quantity over quality. We should always keep in mind that when we’re dreaming of a system that focuses on the reverse, we run the risk of creating something far worse than strawberries that bounce.”
Wish I had written all that.