My first day on the tractor was a disaster.
I was at the wheel of a Minneapolis Moline, pulling a plow through the the gumbo clay soil of the Tarkio River bottom. My dad was perched on the fender, imparting instructions in a voice loud enough to be heard over the roar of the barely muffled engine.
He was holding on with both hands, as my manipulation of clutch, throttle, hydraulics and plow was less than smooth. I spent the day wishing I was anywhere else and ended the day feeling like my future should involve bricklaying, poetry, medicine, law or maybe itinerant preaching of the gospel. Anything, anything at all but farming.
This spring will be the 65th time my dad has planted corn on the field, where I learned to plow. Dad remembers everything; two thirds of a century of experience has equipped him with farming knowledge that is broad, deep and rare. But nothing has prepared us, or any other farmer, for the challenges we’re facing as an industry.
Farms, like any other business, involve a succession of worries. Our crop prices have dropped, and we desperately need moisture, but agriculture means we are at the mercy of weather and markets.
No, what concerns farmers is the growing consensus that the way we farm is nothing less than a crime against nature, nutrition, and all that is good and true. Our critics are convinced that technology applied to personal communications devices and medicine is a net good, but science applied to growing things is freakish, unnatural and dangerous. They are bi-coastal experts on agriculture, armed with a touching nostalgia for a life they never lived.
Consumers have every right to be curious about how we raise their food, and I’m more than glad to spend the next year talking about why we do the things we do.
But those of us out here in the agricultural hinterlands are ill-prepared to joust with eloquent journalism professors, celebrity chefs, and multimillion-dollar propaganda campaigns from franchised burrito stands. Seed corn gimme caps, blue jeans and a stubborn refusal to darken the door of the gym are inadequate tools when your industry is in the cross hairs of Dr. Oz, Oprah, and Mark Bittman, food writer and farming critic for The New York Times.
Farming is the most conservative of industries.
Someone once defined political conservatism as the granting of the vote to those who have gone before. On most of our farms, the people who went before trained us, spent years riding along on the tractor fender hollering advice, and if we’re lucky, are still here on the farm imparting wisdom and experience.
We adopt change very, very slowly, and don’t invest in new ideas or new technologies without plenty of proof that they make sense. Our commitment to the place where we live is strengthened by the presumed tenure of our residence here.
Every year, the extension service in Missouri recognizes dozens of farms that have been in a family for a century. (I’m pretty sure dad is planning on receiving his award in person.)
Know this about me, and most other farmers: We’re in this for the long haul. If I’m using a new method or a new technology, I’m convinced that it’s not only the right thing for me, but for my grandkids as well.