Sunday, February 17, 2019

©John Phipps 2006

Proud to be Industrial

Summer 2006

Few farmers are comfortable being labeled “industrial”. The word fairly drips contempt and calls to mind images of bleak desolation (did you picture a smokestack?). But in the faces of my farm visitors, I have seen the truth. The jolting difference between the farm they see and the farm they expected was troubling. “It looks so…industrial”, one visitor finally blurted.

Yes, it does. And for lack of a better description, I’m OK with it.  Heck – “industry” is a synonym for hard work, diligence and productiveness. Sounds like me. (Some of the time.)

Weird, isn’t it?  A community close to me just lost out in a competition for a new car assembly plant and thousands of good paying industrial jobs. The disappointment was keen. To even hint, however that farming in these parts has become an industry borders on the apocalyptic.

The reasons, I believe are woven deep in our culture. The agrarian ideal I explored earlier (March 2006) has been the promotional cover story for farm policy despite the fact it has been frozen in time since about 1945. Producers automatically disguise themselves as agrarians for a simple reason – it qualifies us for “empathy payments”.

But we aren’t quaint subsistence peasantry. Many of us simply avoid thinking too much about what GPS, HTA’s, and LDP’s imply about the level of technical and economic sophistication we actually employ.

We also have abdicated the heavy pondering of whether agriculture as we really, really practice it is less moral than the image we offer. By failing to articulate a justification of our actions we allow the populist condemnation of modern farming to stand unchallenged, and our own doubts to multiply.

Time’s up on that shrug-off. Industrial agriculture is a rational, efficient and ethical response to the need for “growable” goods. The technology used is morally inert – the way it is employed and the consequences should be the standard by which it is judged.

The agrarian model is self-centered, although portrayed as deeply intertwined with the “natural” world. Self-sufficiency in a tight community may actually be a benign cover for “It’s all about me and mine”. This business model fails the test of arithmetic. Agrarians never point out how their way of life could be extended to millions, nor do they seem to care. The idea that 300 million people in the US alone could be fed by farmer markets is laughable. Therein lays another subtext: agrarians border on being “anti-people” – or at least “anti-more-people”.  

Agrarians are leery of those who can work in larger-than-medieval groups. The basic techniques of industrialism – specialization, organization, centralization – are often portrayed as demeaning, even when the world has found huge payoffs for such cooperative effort.  And don’t bring up technology! Simple, they say, is a virtue.  Fair enough, but then to be complex and good is a greater achievement, and worth applauding.

An alternative view is industrialization is the evolution of artisanal work through technology and people skills. Industrialists may be despised, in short, because they can play well with others unlike themselves, as well as learn outside their discipline.

Fool me once. The inference that industrial agriculture is inherently harmful also conveniently overlooks one obvious rebuttal: how does such a bad practice continue so long in free societies?  Have we finally found a way to fool all of the people all of the time?

Our industrial system ensures such criticisms are heard and addressed. Industrialism is far from perfect, but it rewards innovation, enabling rapid answers. More importantly, industrial agriculture is scrutinized and regulated - from OSHA to EEOC – unlike small farms with blanket exemptions.  Guess which segment will have fewer child fatalities, for example. 

As our food industry progresses with industrial efficiencies, it is ironic that agrarian agriculture is a one beneficiary. The enormous wealth made possible by industrial methods makes small and/or organic farms catering to agrarian beliefs possible, and more importantly, profitably countercultural. If there were no Walmarts, in other words, there would be no Whole Foods.

I am an industrial farmer. I am proud to be part of a responsible team that provides food and more to the world. I welcome agrarians to provide their unique contributions and will abide by the decisions of the marketplace on our differences. But I will no longer stand mute as my work and values are disparaged simply to get an LDP.

And if customers find my product satisfactory, I will intensify my effort. And if they find my work practices insufficiently quaint to deserve subsidy, I guess I win again.

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