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Published on February 28th, 2011 | by Steve Savage

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Why I Wish More People Could Meet Farmers

Farmers at a farmers market in Ontario

The other day I made a comment on a blog post that had quoted an article I wrote about the surprisingly tiny scale of organic farming.  In describing “conventional agriculture,” that author had used the term “chemical laden farming,” which I pointed out was misleading considering the  USDA data which documents how miniscule chemical residues actually are on our food.  Someone else responded to that comment, saying that it is “sad that farmers today are more into the ‘easy money’ sort of farming and not being concerned with the benefits of their products.”

As someone who has been deeply involved in agriculture since 1977, it makes me angry to see someone making such an unfair assertion about the farming community.  It also makes me sad that, not just this person, but a great many others, have never had the opportunity to know farmers or to understand the challenges that they face to provide us with food.   Their vitriol can only spring from a lack of real perspective.

Perspective

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention in St. Catherine’s, Southern Ontario.  This is a region with a highly diversified fruit, vegetable and wine industry.  Most of the farms are relatively small scale and at least part of their production is sold directly at farm stands.  These farmers really fit the image of what most “food movement” non-farmers would imagine as the ideal – except for one thing.  They use pesticides.

People lacking knowledge of farming imagine that pesticides are somehow unnecessary. Without controls for insects, diseases and weeds, crop production is greatly diminished. Most people don’t realize that the organic farmers of Ontario (or anywhere)  also use pesticides for the same reasons, and that the ones they are allowed to use are not all as safe as many of the ones that the conventional growers use.

Farmers’ Reality

I wish the armchair food critics could have heard the sort of talks that were being given to growers in Ontario last week:  presentations on how to manage perennial insect and disease threats even as certain older pesticide products are being discontinued.  Presentations about entirely new pests that have recently arrived in the province for the first time.  Presentations about progress of getting regulatory approval for new pest control products which will not only help control the crop damage, but which can do so with less risk to the environment and to us.

I wish people could see how complex  all of this becomes for the growers who need meetings like this to keep up-to-speed with changing and intensive regulatory restrictions, new product options, and the need to prevent the development of pest resistance to critical tools.  No one who actually heard these talks could imagine that any grower has chosen the “easy money.”

Of course pest control is only one challenge for growers.  They need to manage fertility, soil quality, and weather extremes.  They need to keep up with new plant varieties and changes in consumer trends.  They have to make key decisions about marketing strategy.  They have to find laborers who are willing and able to do the demanding and skilled work (something that is increasingly difficult).

Farmers Are People

It would be great if more people understood just how difficult it is to farm, but even better if they met the kind of people who do this.  I always enjoy talking with farmers.  Whether it is in Southern Ontario, the vineyards of California, The Corn Belt, the High Plains, the isolated farming valleys in Colorado, Eastern Washington, banana plantations in Ecuador and Costa Rica, or the vineyards of Italy – everywhere I have had the privilege to meet growers, I find them to be great people.  They are highly knowledgeable, responsible,  open to new information and innovative.  They tend to have a great sense of humor and an intrinsic optimism to get them through the inevitable ups and downs of farming.  They are just pleasant, unpretentious people.

I wish more people knew farmers.  If they did, I’m convinced that they wouldn’t be so receptive to the widespread demonization of modern agriculture.  It is always easier to demonize something faceless because once you see the real people involved, such harsh judgmentalism is hard to sustain.

You are welcome to comment here or to write me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

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Image credit: Frenkieb at Flickr under a Creative Commons license



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



7 Responses to Why I Wish More People Could Meet Farmers

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Steve. As the Assistant Manager for my local farmers market (http://harrisonburgfarmersmarket.com) and someone who has studied sustainable agriculture for a long time (though not practicing it), I understand where you are coming from. At the same time, I know many farmers who do not use pesticides and can make it work–work well, in fact. One of the biggest concerns I have with pesticides is that, like with antibiotics & antibacterials, they create an “arms race” in which the pests adapt and we have to continually ramp up the amount and nature of pesticides–not in all cases, but in some.

    This is much more of a concern with large-scale monoculture agribusiness than small-scale farming, of course, which is (one of the many reasons) why changing the model of how we farm is crucial. I agree that in most cases it is a bit shortsighted to villify small-scale farmers who use chemicals. That said, I also fear there is still some inertia and resistance amongst some farmers to educate themselves and enact natural, chemical-free methods to achieve the results they desire, as well as to look at the *holistic* system of which the harvest is only a small part.

  2. Steve Savage says:

    Justin,
    I would challenge the idea that there are growers who use no chemicals (except in certain greenhouse settings). People will often say that but when you push them they actually use the “natural” chemicals that include things like copper salts and sulfur which are used at very high rates and are really less desirable from a safety and environmental perspective. Chemical use on fruit and vegetable crops is much, much higher than on the broad acre row crops. I don’t think there is any consistent difference in chemical use between large and small growers. It is more a function of where the crops are grown and what that means in terms of pest pressures. A small potato grower in Maine will use vastly more pesticides than a big one in Washington because it rains during the growing season and disease is a problem. If he is an Organic grower he will use even more because the coppers are his main option and they are used at multiple pounds per acre for every application

  3. Nate says:

    Great post. We are actively trying to narrow the distance between our dinner table and the farm so that we are more aware of what farmers do and have to go through. We are planting our first vegetable garden this spring and have joined our local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) program so that we can support our local farmers. We are hoping that others see our post and explore CSA’s in their own local areas. As you said, it would very beneficial if we all knew more about what farmers do.

    http://www.greenlivingeco.com/community-supported-agriculture/

    Justin, good to see you out supporting the Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market! My wife’s brother and sister-in-law own the Joshua Wilton House there, which, as you know, uses pretty much all local meats and produce. We stop by the farmer’s market there every time we are in town and it is open.

  4. Blake Hurst says:

    I find the arms race analogy particularly unconvincing. Not because its not true, because it is, but because it didn’t occur with the advent of synthetic pesticides. I’m old enough to remember when mechanical cultivation was the first defence against weeds, and weeds with single, hard stalks thrived-they were able to slide around the cultivator shovels. Now we use chemicals that are death on those weeds, but other kinds of weeds are now problems because they can develop resistance to the present chemicals. Weeds adapt to whatever means are used to control them. That was true when we had no synthetic chemicals, is true now, and will be true until the end of time. Blame the fall of man, not Monsanto

  5. Steve Savage says:

    Blake:
    I agree that weeds are a curse of biblical proportions. Tillage is problematic because of soil erosion and organic matter loss. Herbicides are problematic because of the threat of resistance development. In recent years many really great, safe, effective new families of chemistry have been discovered for the control of insects and diseases. Advances on the herbicide front are not as promising. You are right that this “man against nature” struggle will continue

  6. “FARMERS ARE PEOPLE”
    “I wish more people knew farmers. If they did, I’m convinced that they wouldn’t be so receptive to the widespread demonization of modern agriculture. It is always easier to demonize something faceless because once you see the real people involved, such harsh judgmentalism is hard to sustain.”
    I like what Mr. Savage said in defense of farmers. I know a lot of hard working farmers who are very careful to use only government approved products to feed their animals and to control the weeds and enhance the growth of their crops. Of course, any kind of unnatural product introduced to our food source carries a measure of risk. In fact, there are some who don’t use any unnatural products at all. They prefer to weed by hand, and to vary what they grow from to year to keep the soil healthy. Most farmers are conscientious, down to earth, people who are very concerned about the safety of their product. They not only have to be safety conscious about their product and produce but also have to contend with the curve balls that Mother Nature throws at them. It’s hard work and money does not come easy to them.

  7. Steve Savage says:

    Easy Money,
    Thanks for further support of farmers

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