The Winning Combination — conference speech

This year marked the twelfth opportunity I have had to address our annual Farming for the Future conference, and I have to say it is still one of the most challenging and solemn responsibilities I have as executive director of PASA.  Through the years I have tried to highlight some of the most important issues we face organizationally and as part of a larger, sustainable ag and food system movement that continues to spread across the country and beyond.

But I have to say that while the challenge and thrill that goes with this duty still feels much the same, there has been tremendous change over this past dozen years in terms of the audience.  The audience at the conference, in addition to doubling, has evolved from consisting primarily of current sustainable farmers wishing to learn new things and be rejuvenated for the year ahead, to a gathering heavier on the “beginning farmer” contingent.  The spread between the two has made it more difficult to plan programming that will please everyone, but this is a challenge we enjoy facing.

The external audience has changed even more.  In this regard, I am thinking not only of average consumers, but also the remaining conventional farmers out there and, most particularly, those agricultural organizations and corporate interests that often look at things differently than we do.  I was recently reminded on twitter of a famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that goes: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

In these twelve years, I have witnessed the progression that Gandhi referred to, in exactly that order, though overlapping from stage to stage.  A good example would be my experience with the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations, which is an organization consisting of about sixty farm-centered groups ranging from farmer membership organizations such as PASA and the Farm Bureau, to commodity groups, and organizations representing equipment dealers, feed manufacturers and the like.

In the beginning of my experience with the Council, PASA was indeed ignored or, worse yet, actively avoided.  I remember times when the only serious discussion in the room occurred when I went to the bathroom – I would interrupt it when I came back in.  Then we were laughed at, and I learned to roll with the punches and even to laugh along at ourselves.  To this day I am known affectionately by some on the Council as “the tree-hugger.”  And then we fought, over issues such as regulation of CAFOs, milk labeling and even bylaws of the Council. I was eventually successful in removing a provision that gave each organizational member a veto over policy positions taken by the Council.  And now, I guess you can say we are “winning” in a sense, in that the State Council of Farm Organizations, at its annual meeting in February, elected me as their new president.  This is much more a win for PASA, and our farmers, than for me personally . . . we’ve gone from being ignored to providing leadership for the whole agricultural community!

But I’m not quite ready to declare victory in any sense just yet.  I think Gandhi may have failed to report a couple steps in the process.  Besides, the Council has lost most of its clout in state government, mirroring the loss of influence wielded by the agricultural community generally speaking.  On a national scale, this phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions, with only 14% of the electorate in the November election coming from rural areas, and only a fraction of those votes representing farmers or farm interests.  It’s in fact alarming to note how few legislators at the state or national level have a farm background, or even general knowledge of farming anymore.  No wonder they have a tendency to believe what someone with shiny new shoes and a check in hand will tell them on the subject!

This dearth of power, you would think, could represent an opportunity for those of us in the sustainable ag world to exploit some of the growing popularity of local and sustainable food systems with consumers.  You might expect that the time has come to finally exert our leadership and influence to change things for good.  But that’s not the case, and I’ll tell you why.

In brief, we actually don’t get along all that well with each other.  I don’t mean we don’t like one another.  But with success of this movement has come some of the problems associated with any fast-growing enterprise, chief among them being the tendency toward excessive fragmentation and loss of the ultimate vision that got things going in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, the sustainable food and farming movement is extremely diverse, and that diversity is our greatest strength.  It’s just that diversity of thinking must be balanced by a clear sense of common purpose.

By fragmentation I mean that different segments within the movement sometimes work at cross purposes with one another, whether out of pride, envy, or just plain old competition for necessary funding.  I have noted in recent years a growing sense of unease, reluctance to share information, and sometimes even a tendency toward undercutting behavior when collaboration should be the rule.  I don’t claim that this tendency is anything other than the normal course of business with human beings – a sociologist named Peter Berger once termed it the “heretical imperative” in explaining how the Protestant church became so fragmented over time.  This situation does come, however, at a time of tremendous opportunity – as already discussed – and also dire need.

Where do I even start in describing the heightened need for the sustainable farming and food systems today?  Many PASA members have been hearing about it for the past 21 years from the keynote speakers who have graced our conference.  But you can also read about it in most any daily newspaper, if you’re willing to read between the lines.  First there is our shaky national economy, rooted in things that are not real, and dependent on the isolation of its various parts.  We are desperately in need of a new model.  Then there’s also our society’s healthcare crisis, evidenced by the growing prevalence of chronic disease that just about everyone agrees is itself a result of the food most people eat these days.

There are several other areas of concern I could mention, but none as critical as climate change, since it transcends all the others, and all national boundaries, in representing a scourge that threatens life on Earth as we know it.  Now, I’m sure there are differences of opinion about climate change among our members, and justifiably so.  But the consensus is rapidly developing that “something is happening” when we see increasingly erratic weather, storms of structure and proportions never seen before, and in the past year an average temperature a full degree above the previous record (these things are normally measured in tenths or even hundredths of a degree).

When you think about it, risk to the environment and life on the planet was probably built into things from the beginning.  Some of you will remember my discussion of the book of Genesis a few years ago, in which I detailed that the punishment for human arrogance was that we have to farm, and also that the rest of human history can be described as society’s relentless efforts to avoid that punishment.  Well, since we are mostly gluttons for punishment, you will likely understand that the solution is not to run from farming, but to embrace it.  Therein is also the answer for solving human arrogance, and for healing the planet.

We know that carbon once released through burning or other uses can again be stored in vast quantities in the soil through organic and grass-based methods of farming, and that further release of carbon can be greatly reduced through sustainable farming practices and reliance on the wind and sun for much of our energy needs.  I submit that, in fact, we pretty much know everything we need to in order to turn this climate ship around.  But what we lack is the sense of urgency, the resolve, the unity of spirit and ultimately the leadership to get it done.  And by that I don’t mean that we just need the right leader(s), because effective leadership is pretty much determined by the willingness of followers to adhere to a plan that serves the common good, more so than the urging of charismatic leaders.

There is also an indelible link between the issue of climate change and the other big challenges I mentioned – the economy and healthcare – in that the solution for one can lead to resolution of all of them.  Using farming methods that store carbon, combined with other aspects of sustainable farming like building local and regional markets and assuring fair prices, will lead to an economy based on real rather than imaginary value, and relationships rather than isolation.  It also will lead to improved healthfulness for everyone.  It’s just that simple to achieve, if we can find a way to make this our highest priority and greatest common goal.

I am not speaking under the influence of a delusion here, but a keen sense that, while farmers cannot by themselves save the world, the world cannot and will not be saved without the earnest involvement of farmers everywhere.  This is not just a national crisis, because carbon released anywhere in the world adds to the problem, and carbon sequestered anywhere is part of the solution.  And so, even though carbon emissions in this country are now dropping, we can do so much more to help store the world’s carbon, and to inspire farmers in other countries to join in the cause . . . in fact, some of them are already ahead of us, and we can also learn from them.

But in order for any of this to happen, we will need to solve the problems within our own community first, so that we can ultimately assume the leadership role for which I believe we are destined.  Fragmentation is not an unusual problem; as I said, it is often seen in any type of fast-growing business environment.  There does come a point, though, at which over-fragmentation leads to frustration and even failure, and I fear that we are near such a point in our movement.

We are at such an excruciatingly critical time in our history, where very effective and lasting change is being resisted on so many fronts . . . and I believe that nothing will change until everything begins to change.  The solution is that we must find ways to work together, more intensely than we ever imagined before, in order that widespread, massive change can happen in a positive way rather than otherwise.

Someone once said that “The future belongs to those who show up.” I think that is true, or at least it was.  A more current version of the same statement might be “The future belongs to those who show up, and are able to form effective partnerships to get things done.”  There is little doubt in my mind that we are now at a point in history where we must take that seriously, and that our members can in fact save the world, if we find new ways to work with each other, and with other likeminded groups across our communities, our country and the world.

To that end, perhaps the arrogance has to go first, and then we can embrace our destiny to farm, and to rediscover the garden of possibilities that we left so long ago.  This would be the kind of victory that Gandhi referred to.  But we cannot get there unless we first overcome differences and work very hard, together.  And we most assuredly will not get there unless we start working on a local basis, and get started right now!

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