In agriculture, labels matter—until they don’t

By Gene Hall

In my more cynical moments, I suspect that the great confusion and controversy surrounding agriculture today is on purpose.

In this mindset, I can easily conclude that those organizations that survive by demonizing modern agriculture manipulate the language and the labels to suit their own purposes. In this way, passions are inflamed. Money is raised. A public is misled. Calling you “Big Ag” could mean “Big Bucks” for me even though all I’ve contributed to the debate are a couple of politically charged words.

I concluded awhile back that, in a way, farmers and ranchers have aided and abetted this nonsense. Forty years ago, the people who worked the land were concerned about their image. In Farm Bureau meetings, you’d hear things like, “They think we are unsophisticated hayseeds.” For people making business decisions every day, managing risks that would scare a Fortune 500 CEO and dealing with the hard reality of science and profit, this was not acceptable.

We began to talk about agricultural “operations,” agricultural “producers” and even (gasp!) the agriculture “industry.” It’s hard to know for sure, but perhaps the almost completely meaningless political chattering about “industrial agriculture” began in this way. Activists hint at dark and sinister things when they use these descriptions. Usually, it just means big. But then, the market for the product is pretty darn big.

I think “agricultural producers” understand now that the best way to refer to themselves is the simple and most accurate way. That would be, farmers and ranchers. They do what they do on “farms and ranches.”

There are those who would try to shoehorn their own beliefs into models they don’t understand and labels that don’t accurately describe anything.  “Family farms and farmers have to be small and do things the way I want them done.”

Farmers and ranchers can accept the labels others affix to them, or they can tell their own story. Family farms account for more than 95 percent of all farms in the U.S. Some are very small and others are quite large. Together they produce an abundance of food that is the healthiest and safest this often hungry old planet has ever known. That’s the label I like best.

Gene Hall

Public Relations Director
Texas Farm Bureau
I believe that the only hope for a food secure world is capitalism and reasonable profits for America’s farm and ranch families–that the first element of sustainability is economic survival.
Follow Gene on Twitter and Facebook.

4 Responses to “In agriculture, labels matter—until they don’t”

  1. Robert Domitz says:

    Urban residents understand “big industry,” “big labor” and “big government.” They live in it and are a part of it. They see its failures on television, in the newspapers and in their lives every day.

    “Big agriculture,” however, is foreign to them. They try to rationalize it by seeing the large companies in agriculture as the industrialized “big agriculture”, the Department of Agriculture and other Federal and state agencies (especially their budgets) as the “big government” version of “big agriculture,” and so forth.

    Many urban dwellers do not realize that their local convenience store or restaurant is actually a franchise owned by a small business person. All they see is the big, nationally recognized name on the front. To them, the idea of family-owned farms and ranches is an anachronism that went the way of the horse and buggy.

    One sign of this is when strangers meet, they often ask “Who do you work for?” This implies that, in their world, people are employees, not business owners.

    The activists and “organizations that survive by demonizing modern agriculture” often consist of urbanites who inherently understand the urban viewpoint. This makes it much easier to get their message across to other urbanites.

    Those of us in agriculture must work very hard to even get our message heard, to say nothing of having it understood. We have to thread our way between the “big” and the irrelevant anachronism, in terms that urbanites will understand and accept. This will not be easy.

  2. Gene, I don’t think too many people have problems with farmers and ranchers. They have a great image! There was the occasional grumblings about pesticides or growth hormones, but that argument has gone by the wayside.

    I think people think affectionately about the guys wearing cowboy hats, but not the guys wearing lab coats. Those guys are the ones who modify the genetics of seeds given to farmers. Then after the crops are harvested it’s back to the lab for more chemistry before it reaches the grocery stores.

    We’re told two things… We need cheap food (chemically altered food) for the rising population, and that it’s never been proven that chemically altered food causes problems. I’m not too comforted by either.

    • Robert Domitz says:

      Clay,

      We have been “genetically modifying” our food crops since the dawn of agriculture. It is called “selective breeding” and “hybridization.” These were how farmers converted a bunch of grass variants into the wheat, corn, and other grain crops we have today. The same applies for all of the other fruits and vegetables which grace our tables.

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