Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Interview with the Farmer

I was recently interviewed by a non farmer for a perspective on farmers, farming, food, and the environment among other things.  Below is a copy of his questions and my responses.  Thanks to Jay Sanders for his thoughtful questions.  Check out Jay's wonderfully rich and honest, culturally & theologically informed, often times hilarious blog over at Tie Ly Guh  

An Interview with the Farmer

My father and grandfather spent significant portions of their lives on farms.  I, on the other hand, grew up in an area where the only thing that was being grown was under a heat lamp in my neighbor Dwayne’s garage.  Most of us don’t give farming a second thought.  Maybe we don’t believe it but we still act as though the food we eat was made in some back room at your local Wal-Mart.  Come to think of it, that may be the case but you get my point. 

Recently I had the chance to ask my friend Shane a few questions about farming, why farmers matter and how we can better appreciate the fruits of their labors.

Our country is moving further and further away from its agricultural roots.  Should we be concerned? 

Yes I think so.  In the U.S., most families (people) are now 3 generations removed from the farm and the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57--and rising, meanwhile the farm population is shrinking (less than 2% of the pop., our numbers are low enough now that "farmer/rancher" is no longer listed as an occupation on the census survey.  We are now part of the other people). As a producer this can be quite scary for several reasons.  Primarily, and I don't use this in a pejorative way, is fear and ignorance.  Ignorance is simply a lack of education.  Fear, in this context, is really just laziness masked as activism.  As we as a nation get further away from our agricultural roots, we as a people are less educated, or less aware about where our food comes from.  So many people I talk to literally think food comes from the grocery store.  That's it.  Need more bread or milk?  Go to the store and get it.  The end.  It's quite sad actually.  And, many of our "leaders" and policy makers think the same way.  That's why I say it can be quite scary.  So we as farmers and ranchers have to be more proactive in telling our story and simply educating the non farm folks at all levels to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of agriculture.  That's one of the reasons why each year we have all the area 5th graders come to our farm for Ag Day, and it's one of the reasons I decided to occasionally blog on this topic.  We have to be the voice of agriculture--not documentary films like "Food Inc." that while provocative, only tell one side of the story.  Organizations such as Farm Bureau (who do a lot more than sell insurance), U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, and even Mike Rowe on his show "Dirty Jobs" are acting and working to bridge this disconnect between farmers and farming, and to show the general public that the American farmer by large has at heart the best interests of the land, the environment, the animal, and the end user.

Why is it important to buy local whenever possible?

Well I think it's certainly good to buy local, or participate in community gardens and food co-ops.  One, you are supporting the local economy and local producers.  Two, you are putting a face to the producer of the product you are eating.  That interaction with the producer can be great.  You can ask them questions about how they grow their product, where they grow it and so on, and really develop a good and positive relationship.  Three, generally speaking, it's going to be a much fresher product, and taste better.  So yes, farmers markets and such should be supported by the local community.  However, these types of enterprises often appeal to a niche market.  Food and growth experts tell us that global population is rising at such a pace, that farmers will have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in all the years combined since the inception of farming.  This is a monumental and historic task set before us.  I say all that to say that yes, let's continue to support locally grown and community gardens etc, but let's not be naive enough to think that these alone will solve our growing and future food related issues.   

Many people worship creation and many people seem bent on destroying it.  As a Christian who farms, what do you feel is your responsibility in caring for the land that God has given to you?

I love this question.  I believe that much of the answer lies within the question itself.  I am responsible for caring for the tracts of land (and all land in reality) that God has seen fit to entrust us with.  I think as a Christian, I have been given a biblical mandate to watch over and care for the land (Gen. 1:28-30, 1 Cor. 4:2).  This all stems from the recognition that God created and owns everything (Ps. 24:1, Ps. 50:10).  I'm simply a manager of these resources and my goal is to leave it to the next generation better than it was when I received it.  God is glorified even in seemingly simple and insignificant acts such as this.  Dominion and stewardship rightly understood do not mean domination or destruction.  Nor do they necessarily mean "organic" or "green."  Those are two words that are so loosely thrown around they are void of any significant meaning.  Many well meaning, well intentioned Christians, I think, stumble all over this issue in the name of "Creation Care" or "Christian Ecology."  Again, these are not bad things.  The problem comes when someone reads say, a Wendell Berry or similar type author book, and then takes that and tries to apply some form of "Gospel centered" environment tag line to it, and before you know it, we have denominations unwittingly writing position papers on the evils of incandescent light bulbs and making resolutions for Christ centered global warming response teams.  Good stewards recognize, again, that we are to manage our temporary possessions to the best of our abilities and teach others to do the same, while at the same time not being intentionally neglectful or harmful to that which is entrusted us.  This discussion is so often framed in an either/or format, when in reality it very often can be an and/both format.  We can drill oil and protect the caribou.  We can spray pesticides on crops and still have safe, clean food.  We can't let our environmental conscience be guilted into bad laws and policies b/c some folks prefer Prius's to SUV's.  

Do the big box stores like Wal-Mart help or hurt local farmers like you?

They don't hurt, and if anything they help local producers.  I have a friend who grows pumpkins and he sells them directly to our local Wal-Mart. I have another friend who grew sweet corn and watermelons and sold directly to area grocery stores.  They get paid a premium b/c Wal-Mart knows exactly what there getting, when there getting it, and from whom they are getting it, and it's not something that is being trucked in from a 1,000 miles away when it's grown 5 miles away. Wal-Mart and other chains are a business and they care a lot about public image.  If they can put pretty little signs in their produce sections saying these items are grown locally, people eat that stuff up.  Look, Wal-Mart, Cosco, Kroger etc. care about making a profit and protecting their image.  They also swing a huge stick, especially when it comes to peoples purchasing decisions.  If consumers are demanding product A instead of B, what do you think Wal-Mart is going to do?  That is totally acceptable. So, if a local producer can get hooked up with a box store and provide a commodity that people want, the folks at Wal-Mart are smart enough to recognize a good business deal, and that ultimately is good for that producer(s).

Floods, droughts and tornadoes probably mean more to you than someone in any other profession and for most farmers I know, no matter how good the weather is, it's never good enough.  How has farming affected the way you trust in the supremacy of God?

Well, it is usually cause for a lot of repenting on my part.  Arguably two of the most important factors to a farmers success are completely out of his control:  weather and markets.  More often than I care to admit, I find myself questioning God on too much rain, not enough rain, rain at the wrong time, too hot, too cold and so on.  What have I done?  I've committed a radical form of idolatry.  I've put myself in the place of God and I'm telling God that I know better.  I often shutter at my own foolishness.  So yes, this is a profession that can radically effect ones faith, and without a solid grounding and firm belief in the sovereignty of God, well, that person will feel a lot of anxiety and despair.  Farming can take big swings from highs to lows in relative short amounts of time, and ultimately what I hope this does is push me to prayer, praise, humility, and thankfulness during both those bleak looking times and the rewarding times of walking in high cotton.  As per the guys who say it's never good enough, well I know a lot of those guys, and quite frankly, I don't really like being around them.  No matter how good things are, or how good a year it was, they somehow manage to only speak doom and gloom.  Those guys are annoying and give farmers a bad name.  Either shut up and move on or get into another profession to complain about.  One thing I rarely hear come from my dad's lips is complaints.  Some things I do hear pretty often from him are words of thankfulness and blessings and optimism.  Things are going to work out one way or the other.  It may not be the way you wanted, but having a trust in the supremacy of God is ultimate, for without that no one anywhere would farm.     

Talk to the guy that lives on a quarter of an acre in the suburbs.  Is it important for him to grow something, even if it's a few tomatoes hanging from his porch? 

Sure, yes grow something.  It's pretty easy to start, fun, rewarding, kids can do it with you, and how many things can a person do whereby they can daily see the fruit of their labors?  That's one thing I love about farming--you get almost immediate results of your actions, and then you get to constantly tweak and fine tune throughout the year.  The suburbanite can do the same thing on a smaller scale and watch with amazement as nature does what nature does.  Plus, people just need to get their hands and clothes dirty from time to time.  Folks who are afraid to get dirt on their hands, or kids who are afraid to hold a worm--I don't know what it is, but something is fundamentally wrong with that.

How can caring for a garden, large or small, be beneficial to biblical manhood or womanhood?

Adam & Eve, the first farmers, started out in a garden, and were placed there to work and take care of the garden.  We'll they blew it and now I have weeds in my fields :)  Caring for a garden, or an animal, or a 57 Chevy for that matter--several things can be going on here.  Perhaps a husband and wife are building a garden wall - working, lifting, shoveling, sweating - and in the course of this they are serving one another and modeling a healthy marriage relationship to their onlooking kids.  Perhaps a dad is showing his son how to plow and chop and dig and weed and instilling in his son an appreciation for a strong work ethic and a faithfulness that tiny seed planted grows into large fruit.  Maybe mom is helping her daughter take care of newborn kittens and modeling to her tender care and lovingkindness for something fragile and dependent, which will serve that daughter later in life when she has her first child that is fragile and dependent on her tender care and lovingkindness.  Or maybe an older man in the community is teaching a younger man who never had a father figure, thru conversation while they work to restore a car, how to be a man who leads, protects, and provides for his family.  Perhaps, thru the simple, ordinary, mundane routine of life, even something as plain as caring for a garden, conversations are happening, relationships are being built, seeds are being planted and roots are delving deep into something that is authentic, lasting, and true.  Something that will help men and women in fulfilling their God ordained roles.  Perhaps.

Shane Burchfiel runs a family farm in Tennessee where he grows corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat.  He blogs regularly at Before the Store.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What are pesticides?

"How can an organization preach about informing the public and telling our story when our own producers don't even understand basic terms like pesticide?"

That was said to me shortly after a discussion on a resolution where I was making an attempt to broaden and strengthen the language of a particular line of wording at the recent TFBF convention.  Ultimately the amendment passed--albeit rather clumsily--after some brief discussion which was reduced to little more than semantics after an explanation of the desired purpose of the change.

But it did get me to thinking, if several people in a room full of farmers and ranchers were confused on basic agriculture terminology, how many more people who make up the non farm population (which, by the way, is over 98% of the population in the United States) would likely be confused or uninformed of language farmers use regularly?

What is a pesticide?

To define this, we need to break the word down.  Cide means to kill, hence the use of terms we are  familiar with like homicide, suicide, or genocide.  Pest, in agricultural terms, refers to something unwanted such as a plant/weed, insect, or disease.  Combine the words together to form pesticide and you get a definition of the word like this:

From the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) - any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying or controlling any pest, including vectors of human or animal disease, unwanted species of plants or animals causing harm during or otherwise interfering with the production, processing, storage, transport or marketing of food, agricultural commodities, wood and wood products or animal feedstuffs, or substances which may be administered to animals for the control of insects, arachnids or other pests in or on their bodies. The term includes substances intended for use as a plant growth regulator, defoliant, desiccant or agent for thinning fruit or preventing the premature fall of fruit. Also used as substances applied to crops either before or after harvest to protect the commodity from deterioration during storage and transport.

And from Dictionary.com - an agent used to destroy pests; A chemical used to kill harmful animals or plants. Pesticides include fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides. 

So, pesticide subclasses include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, rodenticides etc.  The confusion arises because in our common everyday language, we choose the easy route and just say pesticide.  It's like when we say Kleenex instead of tissue.  When producers go to get recertified, we don't get herbicide or insecticide recertification.  We get pesticide recertification.  Why?  Because pesticide is the umbrella word that captures or covers all the sub classes of related "cide" words. 

Are pesticides dangerous?

Depends on who you ask, but the short answer is yes and no.  Think about it like this.  Are guns dangerous?  Yes and no.  Are baseball bats dangerous?  Yes and no.  Are vehicles dangerous?  Yes and no.  What do I mean by all this?  Simply, anything not used as its intended function can be dangerous.  So, if a person doesn't follow the label on a chemical, it could be dangerous.  Is that the fault of the chemical?  I would argue nay, it is the fault of the user.  Likewise with guns, bats, cars, computers, or anything else, when used in accordance with how it's designed to be used, it is safe.  When used in a reckless and irresponsible manner, it can be dangerous.  

So why the fear?  

Well, let's just admit the word pesticide doesn't sound nice.  If we had a puffy flowery term we could use instead, I'm sure we would, but pesticide is the word we have, so it is the word we use.  Second, whatever the formulation of the product, all pesticides come with "signal" words on them that denote toxicity of the product.  Words like "caution, warning, danger," and "keep out of reach of children."  Mind you though, these are the same words commonly found on common household products like shampoo, hairspray, and dish soap.  Sometimes they even have cool symbols with a skull and crossbones.  

Many people have at least heard about a product called DDT, and the effect it had on the bald eagle population.  For many, this is perhaps the only association they've had with pesticides.  A memory, a story, a video from over 50 years ago--that is what some equate to modern agriculture and its use of crop protection products.  DDT has long been banned in this country and in several others, and arguably so, but does that mean it, or any pesticide for that matter, should never be used?  Well, one thing DDT is excellent at controlling is mosquitoes--particularly those malaria carrying mosquitoes that are ravaging already ravaged parts of Africa.  I'm not advocating the return of DDT.  However, in those special circumstances where a product could be used safely and help alleviate malaria from war-torn, poverty and drought stricken, hungry, thirsty, and lacking in basically anything you can imagine nations of Africa, I think we could make an argument for the use of a DDT type product.  It's a heck of a lot better than the governments solution of giving them nets to sleep under, but I digress. 

Is the fear of pesticides justified?

I think not, and here are some of the reasons why:

1.  Farmers and producers of food & fiber are required to go thru routine training, testing, and certification on safe, proper use, storage and handling of pesticides.  Training includes items like reading & understanding labels, understanding target and non-target pests, use rates, droplet size, variances such as water volume, temperature inversions, wind speed, ground speed etc., what to do in the event of a spill, buffer zones, and accurate record keeping of what/when/how a product was applied.  And, if we break the rules and get caught, we face serious fines, potential legal action, loss of use, and even potential jail time if the act is especially or intentionally grievous. 

2.  Consider this realistic scenario - Farmer Smith sprays a common product like Roundup (Glyphosate) at a rate of 1 quart per acre, in a solution of water at 10 gallons per acre.  Picture a quart sized bottle of product evenly distributed in 10 gallons of water.  Beginning to see how small of an amount that is?  And, many products farmers use are used at much lower rates like 8 ounces, 3 ounces, even half an ounce per acre.  In other words, this is concentrated material.  Now, how big is an acre?  One square acre is 43,560 square feet, or roughly the same size as a football field.  As you can see, 10 gallons of water with a quart or less of product spread evenly over an area the size of a football field in order to get the desired control of the target pest(s) is not very much.  Suffice it say, farmers are not poisoning the ground--which, by the way, would seem to be counterproductive to the farmer since that's the very ground he is depending on for his livelihood.

3.  There is a difference between regular use and restricted use pesticides.  Basically, regular use products can be purchased by the general public at places like Lowes, Wal-Mart, Tractor Supply, local nurseries etc.  These would be common household and lawn type products that do not require any special license or certification in order to purchase.  These products are diluted down and are typically much weaker in strength.  The products that farmers typically use are not available to the general public for purchase and do require special license or certification for purchase.  You may ask, couldn't anybody just go get the license and fill out the paperwork and buy it?  Well, not exactly.  These dealers know who the farmers and/or licensed professionals (think certain types of lawn care, right of way, utility companies, forestry personnel) are and what the purpose of using these products is for.  To make a long story short, they know who is and isn't allowed to be making purchases of restricted use products.

4.  OK, but shouldn't farmers be using organic products and finding other ways not to use chemicals.  Yes, and we are.  First, keep in mind that "organic" is a loosely defined term and is about as easy to define as is Wicca or New Age.  Second, the organic movement is as much an environmental/political movement as it is a healthy food movement.  However, that doesn't mean we have to have organic vs. non-organic wars.  The fact remains farmers can learn from the organic movement.  The organic movement also has to realize that it alone is not a sustainable model to feed over 6 billion people globally.  Local food co-ops, organic gardens, and farmers markets are wonderful ideas and should be supported and utilized, but a community garden will likely feed more possums, raccoons, and squirrels than it will people.  The fact is that thru technology, crop rotation, no-till, cover crops, and other means, farmers are reducing the amount of pesticides they spray each year.  That's a good thing both environmentally and economically.

5.  All pesticides used in the United States are regulated by federal and state law. Before farmers and other applicators can use them, crop protection chemicals undergo extensive research, development, testing, governmental review and approval to protect human health and the environment before being able to apply for registration from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  For much more information on the criteria that has to be met before a product can ever make it to a field, check out this link: http://www.croplifeamerica.org/crop-protection/pesticide-regulation

Additionally, consider this - many of the common products producers use are naturally occurring in our environment.  For example, the active ingredient in a popular corn herbicide called Callisto comes from the chrysanthemum plant.  Another popular crop protection product called Roundup attacks enzymes in plants that humans and animals don't have, so it is safe to humans.  Finally, there are millions of tiny microorganisms (unseen by the naked eye) that live in the soil and begin breaking down products by literally feeding on these products.  Sunlight also has a similar effect.  So, it's not as if these products stick around in the soil indefinitely, which also greatly diminishes the likelihood of these products contaminating groundwater.  Actually, a better argument for potential groundwater contamination could be made by all the chemicals we dump down our drains, flush down our toilets, or use irresponsibly on our lawn.

6.  Practically, unnecessary or excessive pesticide use is just wasteful and expensive.  Farmers are also business people, and like any good business person, cutting waste and eliminating inefficient methods and practices is good business that contributes to the healthy and stable economic vitality of each operation.

Rather than adding to the confusion, hopefully I've helped eliminate some of the confusion.  Perhaps next time you see an article, or a documentary, and words and phrases like those in this blog appear, you will be all the more discerning.

As with all things, let sound science and common sense prevail; not rash, fear based, emotional arguments.  Thanks for reading and together we as American farmers can and will continue to produce the worlds safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply.  That's what good stewards do.