Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Farm Divide

In some places, Maryland's Eastern Shore still resembles a Norman Rockwell painting. In just about any Eastern Shore town, if the weather is right, you can still find a kid walking down the street with a fishing pole and a jar of worms; farmers still get together at local coffee shops to talk about corn yields, fertilizer prices, and combine repairs.

But there is a risk in getting too misty-eyed about farms and rural life. There is a danger in thinking that farmers aren't businessmen and women, but are rather museum curators or reenactors; protectors of a pastoral idealism whose sole profit comes in the appreciative smiles of those speeding down scenic rural byways. Unfortunately for everyone involved, aesthetics just don't pay the bills.

It seems obvious that farmers have to make a profit to keep farming. Just like everyone else, farmers have to make a living; but unlike everyone else, farmers have to make that living in an industry that is subject to constantly changing variables; input prices (for things like seed and fertilizer), environmental regulations, market considerations, weather, complex federal farm policies and a variety of pressures from the local communities in which they must live and function. It is often said that on any given day, a farmer has to be an economist, a mechanic, a chemist, a veterinarian, an accountant, a meteorologist, a biologist and a lawyer. And then somehow find time to farm. Farming in 2012 ain't for the faint of heart.

As a group, farmers are often placed in a starring role in the tug of war over the future of the Chesapeake Bay. This presents environmentalists with a Catch-22 they don't like to talk much about; namely, their desire to preserve farmland on the one hand, and a desire for cleaner water on the other. Are these mutually exclusive goals? Absolutely not. Should we expect farmers to follow environmental laws, and be subject to suitable punishment if they do not follow those laws? Certainly.

But if the relationship between environmentalists and farmers is permanently poisoned, to the point where no farmer trusts anyone who works for an environmental organization, it is likely that both keeping farmers on the land AND enhancing water quality will become more difficult. Environmentalists can often be prone to finger-wagging self-righteousness, something farmers find especially revolting. Often, environmental groups will use the same organizing techniques for farmers and rural stakeholders as they use for other target audiences; many have learned this is a surefire recipe for disaster and mistrust

Most conservation organizations have learned (some the hard way) that sending a fresh-from-college social do-gooder to a Farm Bureau meeting, or any other place where farmers tend to congregate isn't likely to meet with success. So now many have transitioned to sending slightly older social do-gooders out to do the same job, only now they do it in what might be called a rural uniform. Carhartt pants, dirty ball cap, boots. But they risk quick exposure the first time they are asked a question about fertilizer application rates or their opinion on air seeders versus seed drills.

The most effective groups have actually put farmers on the payroll; as advisors, organizers, and in some cases, spokespeople. These highly-credible messengers have an inherent rapport, and a much easier time building trust, with those with whom they seek to communicate. But as environmental groups writ large continue to take positions that are easily portrayed as anti-farm, anti-farming, and anti-farmer, conservation groups of all kinds will find that farmers not only aren't interested in coming to work for them, but aren't interested in working with them, either.

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