Mid-sized farmers are stuck in the middle – too conventional and “toxic” for the foodies, too small to matter to Big Ag corporations. How do you participate in the food debate without becoming part of the menu? Or, with friends like these, who needs aliens?
By Richard Oswald
Farmers in America have a saying. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
This reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode where extraterrestrials visiting from outer space present earthlings with a book. The title?
To Serve Man.
Written in strange language, the book is all but indecipherable. People assume, from the kind demeanor of the outlanders, that they’ve come in peaceful cooperation as servants to us all. In the meantime, the world’s brightest minds work feverishly to decipher the book and all its secrets. With help from other world visitors, nuclear arsenals are dismantled and Earth soon knows peace as never before. It isn’t long before aliens begin loading earthlings onto space ships, presumably to vacation on their home planet. Then comes a discovery:
To Serve Man is a cook book.
We are all on the menu.
It’s getting harder and harder to exchange information in America. No one seems to be speaking the same language. Special-interest buzz around every issue is almost indecipherable. Even worse, everyone wants to talk, but no one wants to listen. People who should be my friends – the ones who write editorials for big-city newspapers or best-selling books on food, and their foodie followers – should want to be buddies with guys like me. Family farmers should be at the head of the table. Instead, these folks are putting us on the menu.
That’s what Lorraine Lewandrowski just talked about on Daily Yonder last week when New Yorkers forgot to include farmers in their talk about food.
But it’s not just the foodies who like to see my head on a plate. On the other end of the spectrum, big government, big agriculture and big corporations would like to be rid of me, too, because I’m not big enough to affect their bottom line.
We’ve been alienated.
How did I get to this place in time where outlanders supposedly come in peace, but put me in a pressure cooker? Like Rod Serling said in his voice over soliloquy, “Man has gone from dust to dessert, from ruler of a planet to ingredient in someone’s soup.”
Maybe he was talking about family farmers.
It doesn’t really matter whether the alien ship I’m on is bound for Saturn or New York.
Either way, I’m toast. Or maybe I’m just the equivalent of chicken, that bland, less-than-memorable, cheap-to-eat meat on everyone’s plate.
I could escape if I were more colorful. If I could devise a way to turn chemicals and fat into a culinary plate du jour, I could be famous. Or, if I farmed with horses, reducing my food output from 350 to 1 down to 5.
I’ve always said I’d like to try farming with horse once. Remember, I said once.
As it is, due to the limited scope of my operation, I’m considered non-essential to one group, and too modern and efficient to be considered “colorful” by the other.
I grow corn and soybeans, awful things … and cattle! Those ruminant, atmosphere-polluting beasts that make meat and milk. Much is said about cattle and methane emissions. Omitted is mention of upscale restaurants promoting that boon to health of 400 million Americans, black beans, from which there has undoubtedly been a decided uptick in gaseous emanation.
Isn’t that bad for the planet, too?
Oh yes, we are all guilty by association. Farmers like me hold their peer relationships close. It’s difficult or impossible to have an open dialogue. Only the recipe book is honest in what it is, while the rest of us stir the pot. That’s not to say ingredients can’t be changed.
It’s just a matter of taste.
For some people, folks like Wendell Berry or New York Times columnist Mark Bittman are prophets. For others, they’re entertainers – a nice evening companion to roast rack of lamb with potatoes. But to my diminished neighbor-base, they’re out of touch with reality and invisible. Few people in my world have ever heard of them. Fewer still would care what they have to say.
On any scale though, farmers like me are no better than microbes in a digestive apparatus, laboring in the gut of the nation to grow crops our world demands. As egg is to soufflé or stuffing to turkey, we’re independent people who seem to advertise family-farm-killing Big Ag through our apparel and our actions. I even wrote about it once in the Daily Yonder: free monogrammed clothes and the way farmers choose to wear the names of corporations as though we are them.
Some of us take it all so personally. We are ingrained by the etiquette of it all to the point that defending Monsanto or Smithfield and all their devolving pollution is inevitable. Why is that? We seem committed to the demise of our own succeeding generations right before their very eyes, while standing alongside urban elitists who can’t see the dairy for the manure. The difference between them and us is that at least the corporations will talk to us, even while fattening us up for the kill.
This must be what it feels like to be on an alien spaceship menu.
But if family farmers in corporate headdresses had to stand next to their own grandchildren, beside a polluted creek full of dead fish, or on a planet coated in carbon dioxide, as “60 Minutes,” (or alien-like Jerry Springer), fired off questions? How would they answer with their offspring listening? How would those family farmers address the way they’ve betrayed themselves, the generations and our planet?”
Is it all just for a throwaway place setting at the table?
And how can Bittman, Berry or Pollan belch their own brand of greenhouse gas to fly and drive across the country just to tell the world I’m wrong to do the same familiar things on this planet, forever? To grow familiar crops and livestock, as so many others in my family have done? What if JBS, Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield, Monsanto and all the other authors of manufactured food – like the corporate sponsored U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which is committed to grinding up family farmers into nuggets – sat down with foodies and Aliens for a nice long chat?
Would it be Armageddon? Not likely, so long as they have a common diet.
Together, they might all look at me, the main course, smacking their lips one last time as I walk up the gangway to oblivion. I can almost hear them now:
Mmm! Family farmers!
Tastes like chicken!
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.