Farm & Garden

Industrial Farmers Need Some Love!

March 30 2012 - 10:21 AM

CHEAPCHICKENSYesterday I spent breakfast speaking with a roomfull of farmers as part of a PR campaign for the USFRA which is the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Their Premier Partner Advisory Group is Monsanto, Dupont, Pfiizer, and John Deere. They are looking, not for consumer feedback but to tell consumers something new. Here's their call to action (emphasis NOT added):

Raise Your Voices
As farmers and ranchers, we’ve raised pretty much everything. Except our voices. For too long the voice of farmers and ranchers has often been missing in the conversation about where food in America comes from. That changes now. USFRA is inviting all farmers and ranchers to join us in leading the conversation with Americans. Raise your voice and share your story. Together, we can begin a dialogue with Americans about where their food comes from, the importance of today’s agriculture and our commitment to continuous improvement.
I can understand where they are coming from. They are a firm part of a food system that has Jamie Oliver taking swipes, Michael Pollan writing essays, and the news broadcasting tales of animal abuse and green slime. It's a sad place to be. When we think of farmers we think of picturesque families petting their animals with a knowing gleam in their eyes that their buddy will be lunch just about any day now… but that's because we're Chicagoans and don't really see what family farms have become.

Ellen Malloy is a Chicagoan who owns the Restaurant Intelligence Agency and blogs at She raises chickens and eats with her heart and head. She also happened to be seated next to a woman who has a farm where she raises 1,000,000 chickens. Sadly I was across the room but that, I'm sure, was quite some dialogue. You can check it out at her site.

As we went around the room the introductions centered around the farmers and their families. The spin is really true. They are nice people with traditional and strong families and a history with the land. They have years, blood, sweat, tears and money invested and they want to protect that. The big problem is that after we hear about the kids and the marriages and the unique way they acquired or found their farms, they don't tell you much more you want to hear.

They talk of technology that allows a single family to run a farm with 20,000 pigs… or a small number of humans to keep 1,000,000 chickens. There have temperature controls, feeding systems, advanced veterenary solutions… optimized feed, etc. They are proud of these things. Local food blogger and food photographer Grant Kessler's response was to say "But chickens that are outside don't need these things, they have the sun… they eat when they want when they're pastured…" But you can't do that when you have 1,000,000 chickens.

I feel bad for the farmers, though I feel way worse for their animals and unlike Ellen and Grant, I didn't tell them as much. I figured there were already a couple of voices for ethical animal treatment that day. I feel for the farmers because what they are producing has a lousy story. Today I got an email for a Groupon for half off a Groupon. Literally. This is the issue. We are living cheaply. Life is cheap. Tomatoes are cheap. Chickens are cheap. Dinner is cheap. Farmers are commoditized are feeling it. They need to raise their voices because as farmers and as people they feel cheap. They need to think about what they are producing more. They need to care about the finished product more and they need to know that they are held accountable by consumers.

This is why Jamie Oliver is important, Michael Pollan is important, Ellen and Grant are important. They are creating the positive stories that consumers want. That's why they succeed. Consumers are not given the choices they want. They are given pink slime and spin. They're given school lunches that are filled with chemicals. They are given little perfect carrots that galled even the farmer I was seated with. That was our common ground. She said that's not a carrot. She has to bring Little Debbie's to school for parties instead of home-baked cupcakes. She said that's not right. But what about the farmers that produce those carrots and the corn for those Little Debbie's? The first thing on the Little Debbie's website, just above the Alvin and the Chipmunks promotion is "A Family Bakery".

–Josh Brusin