Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The narrative is powerful

“A life unexamined is not worth living.”
Socrates, Athens, 469-439 B.C.

For the 98-99 percent of Americans who do not actively participate in production agriculture, farming and ranching and the production of the food they eat is a great unknown. These people, living in largely urban and suburban areas and generally within a few hundred miles of the east and west coasts, are nearly all two or more generations removed from production agriculture. Most have never set foot on a farm or ranch, and only a vanishingly small number have relatives engaged in farming or ranching. What they know of production agriculture is what they learn in school, from entertainment, and from the major media.

For most of these folks, there’s a vast gulf between what they think they know about farming and ranching and what they actually do know.

Why is this?

The answer is fairly simple.

Above all else, they have no direct experience. They have no idea how to set the rpm on a cow to get optimal P.T.O. performance. They don’t know which side of the corn kernel goes “down” when planting. They don’t know how many acres there are in a gallon or how many rods make a remuda.

If you happen to be a farmer or rancher, you know that the above paragraph contains a number of non-sequiturs. But if you’re not a farmer or rancher, how would you know? You certainly wouldn’t be able to rely on experience.

The 98-99 percent of non-farming, non-ranching Americans must find a different way of understanding production agriculture. They do this largely through school, the media, and entertainment. Let’s look at school this time.

Farmers and ranchers who went to school when I did – the 60’s and 70’s – know that the only time our agriculture lessons came reasonably close to reality was during vocational agriculture classes in high school. Other than vo-ag classes, we got Charlotte’s Web and Steinbeck, a few meaningless and out-of-context facts and figures, and “farmers grow the food we eat.” Tractors were mentioned, and sometimes combines, but we were seldom if ever told what tractors and combines are used for. Or, to any kind of close approximation, how farmers grow the food we eat.

Judging from the questions I take from non-farm kids, the most basic concepts of farming and ranching are still not being taught. In fact, most non-farm and non-ranch kids leave school these days with the distinct impression that farmers and ranchers are happy to destroy the planet in order to make a quick buck. They know this is so because the farmer planned to ultimately murder Wilbur, and because the only good farmers that ever existed were forced off their land, which caused the dust bowl, and were then compelled to drive rickety cars to California, and ultimately, into a life of misery in the concentration camps.

If you think this is far fetched, perhaps you should peruse a few K-12 text books and ask a few teachers what they know – and in particular, what they feel – about production agriculture.

Is it really necessary for students to be taught about production agriculture? Many argue that it is not, despite the fact that so very, very few produce all the food that the many take for granted.

A few years ago a state college professor told me that his college owned enough land that it should be able to become organically self-sustaining in a single year. The college, he said, would easily be able to feed every administrator, professor, lecturer and student a completely nutritious, meat-free, pesticide-free diet.

And he was right. The college has plenty of land. But perhaps his proposition is a bit more complex than he imagined. This is a good example of the difference between knowing something and thinking you know something.

Who, for instance, would grow the crops?

We’ll, the professor opined, they’d all have to pitch in.

Okay. And who would harvest and store and preserve and prepare the organically hand-grown food?

Well, he repeated, we’d all have to pitch in.

I asked him if he had any idea why so few subsistence farmers attend college classes. He kind of scratched his head at that one. I asked him to write me a short paper explaining how his plan would work and how much time students and professors would have for class and extracurricular college-type activities when they’d finished with their shared farming duties – duties which had to come first if they were to eat.

Believe it or not, he never got back to me. And the last time I checked, the college didn’t appear to be farming.

Farmers and ranchers know that the fantasy narrative peddled by academia, the media, and entertainment industry falls apart when it meets the realities of the physical world.

The narrative is powerful and never ending. When the insects fail to die and the worldwide famines fail to erupt and when the superbugs fail to materialize, the narrative is never wrong. The day of reckoning is simply postponed. Like the iconic image of the deranged man carrying a sign proclaiming that the world will end on Tuesday, the narrative-singers simply scribble over ‘Tuesday’ and pencil in ‘Wednesday’.

The narrative is not only powerful, it infects, to a greater or lesser extent, the entirety of the non-farming, non-ranching population. Even in the small, rural, ag-centric towns of middle-America. One would hope that the vast, silent majority remain at least somewhat skeptical of the libel spread against farming and ranching. But after watching events unfold and after visiting with the people that one meets, one begins to wonder.

Case in point. Some of my posts appear in a weekly agriculture-oriented newspaper. The previous post did, as did this one. If you read my newspaper column last week you would have seen that the accompanying picture, which someone in the office had pulled off the web, was of dairy cattle at a feedbunk in a confinement setting. Leave aside the fact that they were dairy animals illustrating a column about meat animals. Ranchers know that during the 30-month lifespan of a beef animal, 27 months of that life are spent at pasture, eating grass or hay. Why do you suppose an image of a confinement operation was selected?

The narrative is powerful. And most people who buy into the narrative don’t believe they are doing so. They are quite certain that the narrative simply reflects reality. They, along with their neighbors, lining the route of the royal procession, ignore what their eyes clearly see and agree that the King’s outfit is indeed the finest set of clothing ever worn by mortal man.

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