Barnyards and Birkenstocks

Barnyards and Birkenstocks: Why Farmers and Environmentalists Need Each Other

Excerpt from Chapter 2, Page 24: “Who’s to blame?”

“Urbanites often complain about farmers who sell out for development.  But it doesn’t make much sense to blame the farmer.  In some cases, farmers have accumulated value in their land, and may own it outright.  But in many others, that land may have been deeply mortgaged–for its original purchase, for cash to cover other business investments, to buffer losses in bad years, and very often to cover ongoing operating expenses.  Even where a farmer will receive significant cash equity upon selling out, that value is likely the product of a lifetime–or perhaps of generations–of personal or family labor and investment.  This may be the principal asset upon the value of which its owner hopes to retire.  The farmer may also have family whose needs and wishes must be considered.

“Who, among those of us who live in the city, would readily and happily sell our home, on the eve of our retirement, for less than it is worth, as a charitable gesture to a needy family or so someone could have the house who was preferred by the community but who couldn’t afford to pay full price?  Even if we wanted to do that, as a few of us might, the vast majority of us simply cannot.

“Blaming the farmer for how the world works makes no sense.

“In fact, the farmer is the very last person to truly want to see his or her farm converted to development.  Farmers typically spend their entire lives and careers working a single piece of land.  They have learned everything there is to know about its soils, contours, pest problems, crop potential, climate, drainage, and other issues and opportunities.  They know the best strategies for making that farm flourish and pay.  They have invested heavily in its barns, fences, soils, equipment, and housing.  They have been raised there and raised there children there as well.  So they have also committed a lot of thought and effort to making it a safe and desirable place to live.  This is, for them, a life’s work or perhaps the work of several generations.  Of the many farmers I’ve met and with whom I’ve discussed these issues over the years, there has not been a single one who said they would prefer that their farm be someday converted out of farming and into development.

“When farmers sell their land to a developer, they do so because they have no other realistic choice.  Society has wired up our political, legal, and economic rules such that they effectively compel these sales.  If we don’t like it, that is what we need to do something about.”

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.”

Excerpt from Chapter 16, Page 242

“A new farm-environmental alliance will generate attention and political clout simply by virtue of being so positive and so unexpected.  When the presidents of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Sierra Club suddenly sit down together at a Congressional hearing and testify in favor of the same legislation, whatever that legislation is, members of Congress will happily pass it.

“As their alliance matures, these groups will come to wield remarkable power simply because they so dramatically cross today’s left-right, blue state-red state, conservative-liberal political divide.  As farm-environmental divisions heal, we might move on to other, similarly contentious disputes.  Farmers and environmentalists might find themselves leading by example, if not by design.  The very existence and success of such a coalition could help weaken entrenched positions of similarly situated groups throughout our society.  Moderate politicians might find new ways to reach deeply into their opposing party’s political camp on crossover issues.  We might begin eroding some of the divisions between cultures, classes, and urban versus rural landscapes that have grown up in recent years and are today stalling our political system.

“The political, social, economic, and environmental worth of such an outcome would be incalculable.”