Barnyards and Birkenstocks: Why Farmers and Environmentalists Need Each Other

Excerpt from Chapter 10, Pages 156-157

“While farmers love their privacy, most are also very sensitive that they be seen as responsible members of their community.  And, like most of us, farmers are typically quite proud of the work they do; they like to feel good about the value and the quality of the crops they grow.  So there is another consequence of market isolation that is not so positive.  The anonymity of the farm products marketplace also tends to drive farming to a low level of expected quality and responsibility.

“Most farmers care a good deal about the natural environment.  It affects the quality of their daily lives and their sense of fulfillment.  It affects their own health and that of their families and communities.  And, not least, their success at growing crops or livestock depends heavily on their ability to integrate their production with the demands of the natural world around them.  So it isn’t surprising that farmers might take pride in protecting the natural environment on their own farms.

“When a farmer-colleague behaves badly, it is frustrating because it makes one’s own scruples seem pointless.  One neighbor’s negligence can reflect badly on all farmers in the community.  It degrades the environment on which all farmers depend.  It devalues agriculture, generally, in the public eye.  And it increases the likelihood that all farmers will face increased environmental regulation.

“An anonymous marketplace for farm products may insulate some farmers from social pressures or liability exposures.  But it definitely throws all farmers together into the same pot when it comes to public perceptions of agriculture.

“It is understandable that most farmers wouldn’t want some litigious citizen digging through their Natural Resources Conservation Service files and looking over their shoulders to make sure everything they’re doing  on their own farm measures up to some unclear standard. It is also understandable if most farmers wouldn’t spend much time worrying about the tiny percentage of their direct-market colleagues who sell their crops by explaining agriculture to the food-consuming public.

“But the less the public knows about what you’re doing, the more mysterious it becomes, and the more likely it is that they’ll suspect that if they did know, they wouldn’t like it.  And the more likely it is they will paint you with your sloppy and irresponsible neighbor’s brush.”