By most personal and professional metrics, 2015 was one for the books. On the figurative side, since late May co-author/daughter Mary Grace Foxwell and I have talked, read and signed our way through nearly 70 events highlighting our book, The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey, from Bismarck, ND, to New York City.
And, literally, across the tens of thousands of miles we traveled and the thousands of readers who gathered to listen, chat, and ask questions about farming and food, only one mildly disparaging remark — aimed more at me than the book — was heard.
Not so with this weekly effort. Letters, telephone calls and emails from Maryland to Montana arrived daily to comment and question, debate and deflate.
Twice a year these writers get their due, like Clarence from Illinois who began a September email to me with, “You disappointed me, Alan.” Clarence’s disappointment arose when, in noting the rise of corn and soybeans production in his native North Dakota, I had “assume(d) that wheat production there was seriously declining.”
In fact, “Hard red spring wheat was grown on 9 million acres” in the state last year as its farmers continued to “diligently seek increased diversification!” Clarence did close on a sweeter note, however: “Don’t worry, I will continue to read your articles; and I’m sure you will try to be accurate with your facts.” I’m sure.
Another emailer was more direct: “Regarding your July 10 article… you are slipping. A 15-paragraph column without mentioning your beloved Uncle Honey? You should be ashamed. Ask your priest for a proper penance.”
Slipping or not, I’m pretty sure we Lutherans remain priest-less.
An August email from a Wisconsinite began with kudos on the book before offering a 1,000-word editorial on why I should limit any enthusiasm about “consumers [who] vote with their dollars…” because decades in the animal feed business had shown him that “…when given an option, the consumer doesn’t give a rip.”
That may be true of the fogey generation — his and mine. Younger generations, however, care deeply. Twenty years ago organic food was for hippies; today it’s a $40 billion market that will grow by 8 percent in 2016.
Another emailer wrote to comment on two columns that examined the checkoff’s $60 million purchase of the slogan Pork. The Other White Meat from the National Pork Producers Council, or NPPC.
The checkoff, he recalled, began when a group of mostly hog farmers “got together in Moline, Illinois, to see if something could be done about” losing ground to “the Tysons of the world with broilers. That was the embryo of the NPPC.” All “committed to participate in collecting a voluntary checkoff” and, soon, “money poured in like water over Hoover Dam.”
Shortly thereafter an administrator was hired, “then an office building complete with a copper roof” was built, and the checkoff, through Congressional action, became “mandatory so even more money could be played with.”
The result? “…Per capita consumption of pork did not increase…margins tightened to lead to consolidation…China became the largest pork producer in the United States.”
“The lesson,” he concludes, is that “if you want something screwed up, get the government involved.” OK, but someone invited the camel, government, into the checkoff tent and that someone was the NPPC.
The invitation eventually paid a dividend — a fat, $60 million dividend — that NPPC then used to largely transform itself from a Midwestern hog grower group to a Capitol Hill political organization.
For every criticism or complaint received since June, many others arrive with praise. Some, like a late November email from Tom in South Dakota, came with both.
“Though I often don’t take the time to read your column because, quite frankly, our political views are pretty much opposite, your latest column… touched my heart and left a tear of joy in my eye as I shared it with my wife…”
Thanks for the gracious note, Tom. I hope to hear from you — and many more — in 2016.
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