The Perception of Industrial Agriculture
Written onFebruary 22 , 2017
Until recently, I was a member of the UVM Extension faculty, helping to develop Vermont’s emerging livestock industries as the state livestock specialist. Over the course of not quite three years in this position, I was fortunate to meet many great people and do some fascinating work. The connectedness and engagement that I had sensed would be found within Vermont’s agricultural community were very real. The opportunities for Vermont agriculture—especially to grow excellent forage and to capitalize on the Vermont image in marketing—were tremendous, as well. However, I became increasingly frustrated with some cultural dynamics that I had not fully anticipated.
My job was to help livestock producers improve their production efficiency and product quality, with the goal of building diversified livestock industries here. What I frequently encountered, however, was a belief (which surprised and alarmed me) that quality was mostly defined by production methods and farmers’ stories, not by objective attributes of the products themselves. In other words, inefficient production methods were often accepted, or even promoted, because they made a farm’s story more attractive to consumers. I encountered advocates of Vermont agriculture who seemed to feel that it was better to play to consumers’ fears (and often misconceptions) of industrial agriculture than to build sustainable industries by improving production efficiency.
Of course, both marketing and production efficiency are important. It was challenging to encounter people who believed that the two are mutually exclusive, that Vermont’s success relies on its distancing itself from anything perceived as “industrial.” In fact, I believe that Vermont can indeed create more efficient—and thus more economically viable and environmentally friendly—farms while still adhering to Vermont values and the Vermont identity.
The farm I grew up on in Pennsylvania was not profitable. Also, to keep it operational required massive amounts of time—time that became decreasingly available as my siblings and I became involved in sports, Boy Scouts, 4-H, music lessons, and a whole raft of other good things. The economic and time constraints drove my father from teaching to administration, and drove us to purchase more of our food, rather than raise it ourselves. Our productive working farm became a lifestyle farm.
I continue to be thankful for the opportunity to have had that lifestyle. My brothers and I learned the need for hard work, the rewards of that work, and how to handle disappointment when the weather, or other forces that always seemed to be up against agricultural pursuits, didn’t go our way. It felt healthy and wholesome. But I’m also thankful to have realized the limitations of our farm. It was not sustainable. As I grew older and spent time working on other farms, I came to realize that, to some extent, the farm I grew up on was an unnecessary struggle; there was a resistance to adapting. Familiarity and nostalgia were certainly not without value, but they didn’t pay the bills.
I do not see sustainable agriculture as one set of values or one way of producing a product. A sustainable system is one that stays viable by offering choices: lifestyle and income choices for the farmer, and product and price choices for the consumer. It saddens me that there are consumers, marketers, and even large institutions who equate “sustainable” with ”small” or “old-fashioned.” I think sustainable agriculture is a system in which many different values and methods can respond and adapt to inevitable changes in economic, environmental, and social dynamics.
I’ve had the benefit of getting to know and befriend many people in agriculture, including what is often called “industrial agriculture.” Unlike we’re often led to believe, the vast majority of them are real, salt-of-the-earth folks, who hold the same values and passion for their work as I did growing up on that little, non-sustainable farm of my youth. They are trying hard to make it, doing what they love. It’s easy to focus on the corporations and forget about the people. But industrial agriculture is made up of real people, too—people who don’t deserve to be demonized.
I also think it’s important to realize that most industrial agricultural practices began as innovations made by problem solvers. Sow gestation crates may no longer be considered humane, but at the time they were introduced, they were intended to counter the negative effects that sow fights had on animal welfare and producers’ bottom lines. Values and understanding about them changed, but it took time for politics, technology, genetics, and price points to adjust accordingly. If an agricultural practice is truly unsustainable, it will eventually cease. It’s good to encourage folks who offer proactive solutions, and to be sensitive to those whose lives may be uprooted by change in the meantime.
As a scientist, I find it easy to see science as the purest form of truth. It took me a long time to realize that just because a solution is scientifically sound doesn’t necessarily mean it will gain any traction. Emotions, and particularly fear, are always going to motivate people. We fear most what we don’t understand, and when 98 percent of our population is not involved in agriculture, fears are inevitable. I hope that Vermonters can be open-minded and reflect on all the different kinds of agriculture out there before making judgments. I believe that doing so could allow us to embrace new ways of farming in Vermont that could ultimately benefit farmers, animals, consumers, and the land.