Monday, July 27, 2009

The Political Face of American Agriculture

I've been wondering a great deal lately about the political goodwill currently associated with American agriculture, particularly the mid-west's livestock and grain production sectors. Honestly, I think the promotion of biofuels did more to alienate today's crop production methods than the upsurge in GMOs from the last two decades. Agriculture is now trying to play the game as an energy provider (i.e., an oil company) and I just don't think that carries with it the same political face as agriculture as food provider.

Moreover, there is no small degree of internal strife associated with biofuels policy. With high grain prices (though perhaps those are subsiding), the livestock sectors' willingness to align with other sectors' interests is waning.

Of course, agriculture as food provider has suffered on its own terms. Meat production, animal welfare, corn syrup, food-borne illness, and that enigmatic "industrialization of agriculture" are firmly planted as objections in the minds of the vast urban electorate that agriculture had better take note of.

And it is. One such effort that you may have seen signs of in your local media is the effort at marketing producers as family-run operations that involve real people. Many think that Jeffersonian recollections are still handy to agricultural interests, at least when it comes to marketing ag against its "black hat" reputation. [When it comes to structural and economic regulation, it would seem that such concerns are often treated as counter-productive. But when it comes to saving poltical face, they sure come in handy.]

Another related effort is the local-food movement. Buying local is, again, and in part, an effort at connecting producers to consumers. And it has the potential to help producers' political case by putting consumers (i.e., voters) on their side.

I wonder, however, if agriculture can't do more. The growing urban agriculture movement has spawned a variety of different ag production efforts within urban landscapes: vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat, etc. In my mind, agriculture would do well to think of urban producers as farmers, encouraging their production and their connection to the natural resources that sustain their efforts. In other words, if these groups can find common ground, then perhaps producers would help their political standing. If they could, the connection wouldn't have to rely on a vision of farming and rural areas that is, if not untrue, quickly fading in the minds of an electorate that is becoming close to three generations removed from the farm.

There are, of course, impediments. The potential for the efforts to fulfill the food and fiber needs of those currently served by American agriculture is unclear to me. And the related factor--whether these producers are really in competition with more traditional producers--is also unclear. However, even if these producers pose somewhat of a competitive threat to more traditional producers, I wonder if the political benefits might outweigh that prospect. And, in any event, it would be hard for agriculture to reject the prospect on that premise, at least overtly.

The more important impediment is the nature of the upsurge in this growingly powerful group of producers. Indeed, I think one can argue that the existence of this home-grown food movement is due, in part, to its rejection of typical production. If that is true, how could the two groups ever see eye to eye? Or, perhaps more specifically, how could typical agriculture align itself with producers whose very existence is a result of rejecting it. I could simply say that stranger things have happened, but that wouldn't be much help. Rather, I wonder if the ag sector's current efforts at identifying producers as people isn't part of the answer. Rejecting industrialized agriculture is easy if one envisions it as a faceless beast. But if ag is successful at telling the stories of people within the industray, it becomes much more difficult. On the ground, the majority of producers within our industrialized ag system are not easy to hate. If ag can paint itself as families trying to produce a good that will feed others; running businesses that will support their local, state and national economies; and trying to do what they can to protect the resources they make their livings from; then I think the ability to identify with the urban producer is viable. Note, however, that this is much different than drawing upon some sort of urban favoritism for an ill-defined family farm. Rather, it is a "we have more in common than you may think" move that could pay substantial dividends without the mythology.

This may, of course, be pure blather. But I think the potential is there. That doesn't mean that I think it should happen. Those who would resist this commingling of producers would do well to focus on production methods and reject the common traits of producers as irrelevant. Those who would champion it should do the opposite. Those who view production as production, regardless of the type, might want to consider what producers can learn from one another. In any event, perhaps the ag-urban interface is changing.


Blogger Agrilawyer said...


As I read through the article, I believe you have acknowledged many of the issues that are facing the now contentious debate. This seems especially true when you speak of urban and local agriculture essentially being a photo negative of conventional agriculture. I believe this is the perception that is drawn as neither side have truly seen the effect or limited effect that the other side truly accomplishes. Many urban ag folks believe that they are at odds philosophically with the conventional farmers, and many conventional folks are at odds philosophically with many urban ag folks in the sense they believe there intentions to "feed the world" or populous in general are unfathomable.

I believe there is a realistic commonality where farmers of all kinds are filling general demand in the market, whether that be the big bin at a Wal-mart grocery store or the processing of Coca-Cola or the fruit stand in the Lincoln Farmers' market on Saturdays. However, many in urban or local ag have to hold tight to their philosophy as against conventional ag folks as that helps spur the economic reality of demand.

Much of Urban Ag and Local movements are not price driven, but rather story driven - think of the method of selling that 10 thousand villages does where it actually puts the story of how the item was made on the price tag. I believe conventional ag is typically more price driven, but that adds to aura that they are providing for their family and the world whether it is through food or energy production.

This will create a natural vibe of contention no matter how much the groups interact. I believe the only time that there will be a mashing of concepts is if conventional ag feels there is a way to utilize urban ag, thereby purchasing or investing interests in it and scale it up. I say this based on the scaling up of organic products over the recent years, which has led more "purists" of "un-conventional ag" (those who were strong in the organic push) to find another way to align their philosophy with food production hence the urban ag and local movements. I believe this will happen as conventional ag companies will see the profitability of this movement as they did in organic.

Until that happens, I do not believe there will be truly productive dialogue amongst the two groups as many of the urban ag and local movement will merely "exceptionalize" the conventional farmer they do speak to or grant them the victim role of the industrialized food system. In other words, they will say it’s not the individual farmer that is the problem; it’s the whole system, which is a central tenet of that niche market.

Craig Raysor (Agrilawyer on Twitter)

7/28/2009 1:53 PM  
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