What happens when a college in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range holds a panel discussion on food, farming and agriculture policy?
I was curious, so I made the drive up to Itasca Community College (ICC) in Grand Rapids to listen to a panel titled “The Present and Future of Agriculture: The Benefits and Costs of Current Agricultural Policy.”
It began as a typical college campus panel discussion. Facts were recited. Points were made. Panelists tried not to step too hardly on each other’s toes.
Then it was time for Rod Hamilton – the final panelist – to speak. Hamilton traveled over five hours to participate, and he made sure that everyone in the room heard his message loud and clear: The productivity of farmers today is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
As Hamilton was speaking, I wondered how his message was being received by the 100 or so students in the audience. I also thought about the importance of farmers “showing up.”
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
The panel was part of a series of food and agriculture-focused events on campus this fall. ICC students are reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book written by Michael Pollan that criticizes modern agriculture. Each year, ICC faculty selects a book that they hope will generate discussion and debate on campus.
George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer in Iowa also known for his criticisms of modern farming, was featured in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and also participated in the panel.
Let’s just say Naylor and Hamilton had a few differences of opinion.
Enrich and Question
Let’s be honest, students and faculty on a college campus are much more likely to hear the viewpoints of people like Pollan and Naylor than they are of a farmer that Pollan and Naylor label as “corporate” or “industrial.”
Enter Hamilton, a hog farmer and state legislator from Mountain Lake, Minn. The panel needed someone to push back on some of the viewpoints contained in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Hamilton was more than willing to do so.
“You generally get much more of a critique of our food systems here on campus,” said Teresa Alto, a faculty member in ICC’s English department who helped organize the panel. “That’s why it’s important to have someone like Rod here to enrich and question some of the book’s tenets.”
Why focus on food and farming?
“It’s an accessible topic for students. Everybody eats,” Alto said. “But it’s so complex. We have a hard time wrapping our mind around all the complexities even though everything seems to be right there in front of our face.”
The panel discussion showed just how complex certain issues could be.
Sustainable vs. Unsustainable
Even though he farms, Naylor doesn’t have many positive things to say about modern farming. Strains on the environment, dying rural towns, polluted waters and other problems are all linked to corporate-fueled technological advancements that are driving farmers to become bigger and increase yields at all costs, in Naylor’s view.
“Thanks to GMOs, we now have huge grain farms and huge feed lots that have destroyed biodiversity,” he said. “I think it’s very clear that this is unsustainable.”
Hamilton appeared to take personal offense to many of Naylor’s viewpoints, and pulled no punches when it was his turn to speak.
“In the last 37 years, we’ve doubled our food supply,” Hamilton said. “Farmers today are more productive than ever, and we’re doing it while using less water, less land and fewer inputs than we used to. You want to talk about sustainable agriculture? There you have it.”
Hamilton’s blunt opening remarks got many in the audience to look up from their smart phones and check out the farmer who was making his case that a bigger farm doesn’t necessarily mean an unsustainable farm.
“The good old days of farming, they weren’t really that good,” Hamilton continued. “Never has there been more opportunity in agriculture than there is today.”
Now students were paying attention. Hamilton’s passion, bluntness and enthusiasm had injected some life into a panel that, up to that point, was informative, but missing some sizzle.
The debate going on between Hamilton and Naylor was one I had heard several times before. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a discussion that we as a society must have and those in the farming community need to participate in, but I already knew the points each side was going to make.
I was more curious what the students thought. When the panel moderator asked how many people grew up on a farm, only six raised their hands. Later, when Hamilton asked how many planned on becoming farmers, two hands went up.
Naylor and Hamilton weren’t trying to win over me – a public relations manager at a commodity group – they were trying to connect with students, most of whom had no direct knowledge of agriculture.
I talked to a few students after the panel finished to get their impressions.
“I didn’t know about the conservation numbers that Hamilton talked about,” said Jason, a first-year student. “You don’t hear too many positive things about farming and the environment these days. It was good to hear his perspective.”
“These types of speakers make you think,” said Matthew, a second-year student. “Sometimes I wonder what I’m supposed to do after hearing information like this. I mean, I still have to eat. I’ll do my best to make the right choices, but how am I supposed to know for sure?”
“Lately, I’m becoming more aware of food issues, but I don’t get involved as much as I should,” said Danielle, a second-year student. “After reading ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ I guess I’m skeptical of bigger farms. But I know it’s necessary because of all the meat we eat.”
The Big Picture
There were two other panelists besides Naylor and Hamilton. Rob King is an applied economics professor at the University of Minnesota and discussed the history of the farm bill and agriculture policy.
“Ag policy is only one of the things that shapes the food system,” King said.
Patrick Welle, professor of economics and environmental studies at Bemidji State University, addressed water quality and environmental issues in farming.
“There’s a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of blame going around,” Welle said. “Ag is part of that, but often ag gets blamed too much. The livelihood of producing food and fiber is essential to us.”
Remember what Alto said about complexity? The panel she helped organize is a prime exapmple.
In less than two hours, panelists tried to cover policy, the environment, technology, trade, water quality, conservation programs, soil conservation, and several other ag-related issues. That doesn’t even count the back-and-forth between Naylor and Hamilton.
“We’re looking for simple cause/effect relationships on issues like this when it’s more complex than that,” Welle said. Welle was responding to a question about conservation on smaller farms vs. bigger farms, but he might as well have been talking about any of the subjects raised on the panel.
So, agriculture issues are complicated. What are farmers supposed to do about it and why should they care?
Farmers need to make it a priority to show up. Try to explain these complex issues as best they can.
When ICC invites farmers to participate in a panel like this one, accept their offer like Hamilton did. Seize the opportunity to connect with non-farmers who want to know more about food. ICC also had a beef farming panel on Monday that featured viewpoints from all sides of the agriculture spectrum — farmers both big and small showed up to try and make better sense of additional complicated agriculture issues.
You can bet people like Naylor will show up. They’ve been showing up for a while now.
Many students were nodding as Hamilton pushed back on Naylor’s viewpoints. What if Hamilton didn’t think it was worthwhile to participate in the panel? Would anyone have stood up for today’s farmers?
Hamilton’s message was received in that room. He didn’t magically convince everybody that his viewpoints were the correct viewpoints, but because he showed up, his message was at least received.
As farmers continue fighting to have their voices heard in the discussion on food and farm policy, it’s important that they don’t forget the importance of simply showing up.
— Written by Adam Czech, public relations manager at the Minnesota Corn Growers Association