I’m getting whiplash keeping up with the narratives in agriculture these days.
On one hand, farmers are misunderstood. We are the salt of the earth, doing God’s work, day in and day out, only for fancy city folk and entitled suburbanites to go off and eat uber-processed fake meat out of spite. We’re overworked, underappreciated and hemorrhaging money and resources, because commodity markets are fluctuating and oat milk is popular. Farms are shutting down, left and right. Woe is the farmer.
On the other hand, heaven forbid Farm and Dairy publish a story that might raise questions about the impact of the region’s oil and gas exploration. We can’t publish that, we’re told, because shale gas made farmers millionaires. They’re doing better than ever. When the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, comes up, I see complaints about farmers not getting enough or certain groups yelling about being cut out. Funny. Those payments helped pay for a portion of new perimeter fencing we wouldn’t have been able to afford in a “normal” year. And we’re just lowly sheep farmers.
Just like you
So, which is it? Which agriculture should we cover? Some may not believe it, but we get a lot of positive feedback. Farm and Dairy has a high level of reader engagement, and folks are always getting in touch. At the same time, I’m aware there are those who think the newspaper is run by a bunch of liberals these days, namely me. If you take time to read my columns, you know I am open about where I stand. I have a lot of influences in my life, and they’ve shaped who I am. If you think you know what I think about issues, you probably don’t.
I don’t expect to please everyone. That would be impossible. It doesn’t change that I am a farmer. It’s a large farm, with a lot going on. It was where I made money as a teenager, where I learned how to run a small business — and, now, it’s where I am working hard to help my family figure what the future looks like. We’ve got plans. They’re exciting and terrifying, and I hope they are a way to ensure that this piece of land continues to give back to the community and the region in a meaningful way.
I’m not some armchair quarterback. I live this stuff. Some of my ancestors traveled historic U.S. Route 40 and settled in western Pennsylvania about 200 years ago. Even if I wasn’t born in the region, I do have roots.
I’ll admit: microgreens are somewhat life changing. I’m a bit crunchy like that. But I’m not sitting around hoping we become some iteration of a small-scale, get-rid-of-every-corn-field agricultural model. Even though our sheep spend 90% of their time outside foraging, we supplement with a corn and soy-based grain mix during flushing, lactation and market finishing. It’s a sensible, economical feed source.
I believe moderation is the key, not wholesale change overnight one way or another, to fit a narrative that makes us feel better.
It seems silly to have to write these things — in some cases, again — but I’ve noticed nuance and diplomacy seem to be in short supply these days. As much as I’d like to discuss larger ag issues, I find my columns of late focusing on other things out of necessity.
So, let me be clear: Farm and Dairy is the agricultural newspaper of record in the region. Those of us who work here are proud of that standing, we love agriculture and we will continue to cover it with professionalism and an eye for stories that impact us all.
I’ve written about wanting to build bridges to people with our coverage. As editor, I am also going to ask questions. I am going to encourage my reporters to ask questions. We are not going to accept that just because it’s related to agriculture that it must be good. At the same time, we are not going to accept that just because it’s related to agriculture, it must be bad.
Farmers are some of the best people I’ve ever met. That goes for lots of folks in agriculture, regardless of where they fall ideologically. There is something about people who are used to getting their hands dirty and cultivating something out of nothing. We make decisions that have to do with life or death, literally. We are not medical doctors, but in some ways, we are. We are a lot of things, any given day.
I know, because I’ve been there. I have had to make critical editorial decisions and face a life-altering dilemma on the farm the next minute. I’ve felt like I’ve reached the end of my rope, only to have to scrap and claw for one more inch. Don’t mistake that for a complaint. That’s solidarity. I get it.
No free pass
That doesn’t mean we farmers get a free pass. Not only do we have to be medical doctors and manual laborers, we have to be business people and entrepreneurs. We need to be willing to be evaluated — and, maybe, admit we weren’t right — to get better at what we do.
I have a wonderful team here. I have folks who have a wealth of institutional knowledge. I have reporters who are skilled, dedicated and passionate. Who are farming and whose families are in many of the same agriculture-adjacent professions you are. They are not reporting on agriculture from afar. They’re reporting on issues that affect them and their neighbors.
Someone recently wrote to complain about a writer. This was part of my response: “It is unfortunate that we have reached a time when uncomfortable topics are not allowed in our spaces, and, if they are addressed, folks resort to casting aspersions against the writer of the story, rather than debating the merits of the topic itself. Current events being as they are, folks in agriculture can ill afford to turn a blind eye to what’s going on around them. We will continue to examine issues as they arise, because they are important for all of us to understand.”
Agricultural, rural and food policy reporting is the topic du jour, apparently. Farm and Dairy holds a unique position in the middle of that. It’s because of the team we have — we are people who care, who live what we’re reporting on. We’re not going anywhere, and we’ve got work to do.
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