Is Agriculture Preaching to the Choir?

Those of us involved in agriculture have a terrible habit … preaching to the choir. So often we find that we are talking to each other about the problems that plague our industry, and, at the same time, reminiscing about the good old days when government kept its nose in its business, and we kept our noses in our business.

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We talk to each other about the power of agriculture and the importance of maintaining the “most affordable, most abundant and safest food in the world.” But who outside our common community is really listening to our story? And who in the urban population truly understands the significance of today’s American agriculture?

Turn to any of the many postings that are on the Internet and that pertain to the farm bill and scroll to the reader comments below the story. You will quickly see that there are many of our urban neighbors who do not understand our agricultural industry, and neither do they recognize the importance of meaningful farm legislation to our country and our way of life. They talk, instead, of large farm corporations getting fat subsidies from taxpayers. They do not understand that many small family farms are established as corporations for tax purposes, and they do not understand how protecting the economic stability of farmers is important to America.

Urbanites do not fully understand that the farmer’s and rancher’s ability to produce food relies heavily upon forces beyond their control. Forces like the weather, insects, plant diseases, wildfires, expanding government regulation and trade embargos.

It is often said that two thirds of the domestic production of grains is consumed in the United States, but it is the remaining one-third that determines the price … the one-third that is shipped to other destinations in the world market. Farmers are not able to determine the price of the commodities they produce based on the cost of production, but rather are at the mercy of the world market that sets the price. But who among us takes the time to take the message to our urban neighbors?

I once visited with a gentleman representing the European Union’s agricultural industries. He was asked why Europeans at that time were so committed to their regions’ agricultural sector. His reply was simple, “you Americans have never fought a world war on your own soil, you do not know what it is like to see mass starvation … not because you cannot afford food, but because there is no food to buy.”

We Americans do take the things we have for granted. We know that abundant and safe food has always been available to us, so why should we expect otherwise? Most urbanites have never visited a farm to see where their food is grown, and they have never seen a farm animal except on television or in a movie. And if the importance of something has never been established through open dialogue and example, why should the urbanite change his or her opinion from what has already been established in their mind?

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My wife’s great aunt visited with us years ago. Having been born and raised in New Jersey and not far from New York City, she had never seen a farm or ranch. While traveling to Corpus Christi one day, she inquired as to what all what all the “white stuff” was in the farm fields. Explaining to her that it was cotton, she could barely conceive in her mind how something grown in a dirty farm field in South Texas could make it to a fine, finished garment for sale in a store in New Jersey. It is difficult sometimes, for us involved in agriculture, to understand that city dwellers really have no concept of the agricultural industries. Who is there among us willing to take the time and effort to explain it to them?

A young boy in San Antonio was once asked, “Why do you think farmers work so hard on their farms?” He replied, “because they like to farm.” Indeed, most every farmer will tell you he or she likes to farm … that he or she enjoys the hard work and seeing the eventual fruit of his or her labors. But farmers, like everyone else, have families to support … food to buy, clothes for the children, fuel for the family car, money for college education, dollars for health care. Farmers need all the things their urban neighbors need.

Many folks do not realize that the majority of spending in the farm bill is for the food stamp program and other nutritional programs to protect the poor. And if they do know this, they wonder why food welfare and nutritional programs are a part of farm legislation. But who takes the time to tell them, and the time and effort to explain the story? Oh, sure, we tell our politicians … but who tells and explains agriculture’s story to the people who vote for them?

Some years ago an editorial appeared in the Victoria Advocate, lashing out at the national farm bill and its burden to the US budget. The editor was so fixated upon the cost of the program that he failed to mention the many contributions that agriculture makes to the American economy. When I wrote a letter to the editor responding to the newspaper editorial, I broke the farm bill spending into various categories … explaining that most of the farm bill’s cost could be attributed to the food stamp program.

I was surprised to receive a personal phone call from the newspaper editor arguing that the food stamp program was not a part of the farm bill. I referred him to a source at the USDA who, when contacted, confirmed that the food stamp program was not only a major part of the farm bill, but a significant and major expense to the legislation. A lot of people do not realize that the national food stamp program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. But … who is there to tell the story to our urban friends?

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If agriculture is to survive in this nation and if it is to continue to contribute to the national security of the United States, it is imperative that we in agriculture form relationships and bonds with our urban counterparts. Communication, though, must be a two way street, because many of us familiar with our own rural issues and problems are not so aware of the problems that confront our urban neighbors.

Communication is not necessarily dependent upon the spoken word. Sometimes our actions speak volumes about our industry.

Growing up as a young boy in rural America, it was not uncommon for our family to spend time hunting during Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation. And when we had a successful hunt, it was also not unusual for us to strap that big buck to the car fender, or to place it on the tool box in the back of the truck for everyone to see the prize we had collected.

Fortunately, these days we do not often see a dead animal prominently displayed on a car fender or on the pickup tool box. Why is that so fortunate? Quite frankly, the practice is repugnant to many of our urban friends who have not shared the experiences offered in rural areas. You see, we in agriculture need to understand that the political landscape has changed, and that many of our urban counterparts no longer have a direct connection to rural roots. They no longer understand agriculture … but that does not necessarily mean they have lost the will to learn about agriculture.

Those of us who work at or near the state capitol have talked for years about the political transformation taking place in Austin. The transformation has been completed. A significant majority of our elected officials now represent large urban areas east of IH 35, and the power of the rural vote is greatly diminished. How this political reality affects rural communities, farmers and ranchers depends upon how we package and deliver our message to the urban public.

Perhaps it is time for agriculture to move beyond the choir and mingle among members of the congregation.

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