“Shut Up and Eat”? Really?

Many years ago, when I first started in this business, one of my heroes was Morgan County’s Bob Eisenach. Bob always said, “Politics is pretty easy, all you have to do is count the votes.” What Bob was saying was that if you don’t have the votes, then you better be at the table negotiating to get the votes.

Agriculture doesn’t have the votes. We need to be at the table. Consumers are the key to successful family farm and ranch agriculture because they have the votes. Agriculture has to let consumers into our world and work with them, not just to provide strong food policy for the consumer but also to protect the viability of family agriculture.

Inviting consumers into our world may be a bittersweet pill, but we must take it. Farmers and ranchers are independent folks. We thrive on competition, and we will protect our land, water, and livestock practices like no other industry. We are the backbone of this country and we know it. A healthy rural America means a healthy America.

Believe it or not, lots of consumers understand the importance of a healthy rural economy and its importance to them as consumers.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union works with a variety of consumer groups. I am proud that RMFU is one of a few farm organizations that embraces consumers and tries to sit down and work with them.
My experience with consumer groups is that they are loaded with bright people who understand the importance of food production and also get the social importance of a viable family farm economy and the need to keep rural America strong. A viable rural economy means prosperous family farmers and prosperous small towns, places with busy main streets, local businesses, and rural jobs to support a small community. Small-town America built this country and makes it great. Many consumers know that. And remember, they have the votes.

Okay, we work with consumers. We create viable family farms, promote rural jobs and shape food policy, and life goes on. So what’s the problem? The problem is that some agricultural producers don’t get it. Sure, most family farmers and ranchers understand the importance of consumers in food policy, but corporate agriculture hates the idea of consumer involvement. Corporate agriculture’s message to consumers is, “Shut up and eat.” It’s no way to make friends.

Corporate agriculture is about one thing, increasing profit. Corporate leaders don’t live in Wray or Riverton or Tucumcari; they don’t care about small-town America, and eating intelligently is dangerous to the health of their bottom line. They don’t care about how many farmers and ranchers there are, or how their decisions hurt local economies, because they don’t have a dog in the fight. Their idea of rural development is to move into a community, create a bunch of poverty-level jobs and ruin someone else’s back yard. Let the local community deal with the fallout. Corporate ag will just move on to the next town, state, or country.

Corporate agriculture wants a world market where they can buy from the cheapest producer and sell to the richest consumer. There’s nothing wrong with profit, but there’s more to life than that. Corporate ag is profit-addicted; nothing matters but the next fix. The last thing they want is consumers who care what’s in their food, where it comes from, and whether it’s safe. A knowledgeable, well informed, and engaged consumer is corporate agriculture’s worst nightmare. They don’t forget that consumers have the votes.

“Shut up and eat.” It’s the answer when additives are questioned. “Shut up and eat.” That’s the answer to concerns about conditions in confined animal operations. Safety of imported foods? “Shut up and eat.” The ideal customer is a consumer dumbed down to trust the corporates about what they are eating. Sadly, I have to admit that for the last thirty-five years the corporates have been winning.

By this time you are probably saying, “Whoa, Kent! Things aren’t that bad.” I know, I know, commodity prices are up, land prices are up, gas companies want to give us wads of money for a little personal inconvenience. Debt is down, and the debt that is out there is covered by low interest loans. So how can I complain?

Well, I’ll tell you. When we talk about how good ag is right now, we are talking as winners. What about the thousands who have lost everything, the ones who have left the family farm because of short-sighted federal food policy? This mass exodus from our rural areas has been devastating to small-town America. Just ask any rural school superintendent how that’s working out for us. The consumer is beginning to understand that corporate ag is not anybody’s friend. We need to see to it that we aren’t seen as “corporate ag, only smaller.”

What is the answer? We have to promote food policy that benefits the family-sized producers, not just corporate agriculture.

We need to further agriculture education so the consumer knows that local food produced on family farms is a bigger value for dollar.

We have to grow rural America by offering jobs that pay well. Fifteen dollars an hour to wade in ammonia at a corporate ag facility isn’t going to draw people back to rural towns.
We have to have profitability in family farm and ranching, but not at the expense of all the other values we all share.

How do we get it done? Like Bob Eisenach told me so many years ago. We need to get the votes.
Family farmers and ranchers already have the support from the consumer, because we really are what the corporates pretend to be. But we need to get off our rear-ends and “work the deal.” We need to drive home the message, that we sell a quality product to people we care about. We need to bring home our allies’ vote. Together, producer and consumer, we can do it.