A theme in the most recent issue of Graze (tagline: ‘by graziers, for graziers’) is what I view as the fundamental tension in the agricultural market. While the bulk of the industry continues on the same course it’s been on for the better part of the last century, with ever more dairies moving from milking hundreds to milking thousands of cows and ever more grain farmers moving from cropping thousands to cropping tens of thousands of acres, there is simultaneously an increasing demand among the populace for proportion, accountability and transparency.
Joel McNair, editor and chief contributor, writes about attending a Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference at which savvy marketing folks discuss the wishes of consumers. Though McNair doesn’t identify it as such, there is a contradiction at the heart of their message. They say that among millennials in particular perception trumps reality, but also that they are extremely distrustful of authority figures who they view as manipulators.
I was born in 1982, which makes me (at least in my own mind) a sort of elder statesmen of this much maligned demographic cohort, so I’ll first note that I don’t see evidence that marketing efforts from twenty or thirty years ago particularly valued accuracy over image. But the bigger problem is obvious. If people - and I don’t think it’s just young people - are increasingly distrustful of conventional food producers, the worst thing those of us trying to provide an alternative can do is to play fast and loose with the facts in an effort to create a positive perception. This is doubly true because the conventional players are increasingly establishing natural and organic brands in an effort to cash in on the trend. Sometimes this entails concomitant changes in the practices of some of their farms, but often it is purely a matter of trying to manipulate their public image.
To my mind this is existential as well as ethical. The environmental cost of agriculture is of increasing concern, and it is one reason many people are seeking out small, local farms. Many of us trade on the notion that our farming methods, focusing as they do on perennials and the careful use of land, are better for the ecosystem as a whole. And in an immediate sense they are - I have no doubt that a permanent pasture has healthier soil and contributes to a cleaner water cycle than the same piece of land would if it was plowed and planted to soybeans. But small farms can be woefully inefficient in their use of machinery and fossil fuels. The details of this deserve their own discussion, but suffice to say that such inefficiency is the single biggest failing of my farm and the thing I most hope to improve in the next year or two.
Perception trumps reality until it doesn’t. Whether it’s CAFO milk packaged with pictures of grazing cows or a small farm that truly is pastoral within its boundaries but relies on outsized subsidies of oil from other lands and topsoil from other fields, the endgame for a broken agricultural reality is considerably darker than the failure of most any other consumer good. The failure of a cologne that promises to increase your attractiveness leaves you lonely; the failure of a farming system that promises to take the long view leaves you (or maybe your grandchildren) hungry.
It’s a tricky thing. I believe organic is almost always better than conventional, and local is almost always better than industrial. But better isn’t necessarily good enough. So here is what I would like: I would like to be able to state with a high degree of certainty that a pound of meat from my farm, by the time it reaches a customer’s freezer, has required less fossil fuel to produce and transport than its supermarket equivalent. I would like a standard of grain production that accounts for soil health by encouraging the rotation of annuals, perennials, and cover crops. I would like easy, reliable, not prohibitively expensive ways to measure carbon sequestration in the soil. I would like other farmers to also use these metrics, and I’d like other farmers to develop their own for me to use.
I hope these can be informal but easily understood by the public at large, rather than yet another labeling standard, a goal which may be impossible. At the very least I hope that the marketing of small and local agriculture can increasingly rely on good, transparent data. Cultivating a positive public image is certainly powerful, and trading on it is only good marketing. And it’s impossible, and probably not desirable, to write a constant litany of every failure on the farm - I’ll readily admit that I don’t rush straight to this blog after each mistake. But over the long term, a perception based on reality will outlast one based on illusion.