Arguing the "Dilemma"

Listen to this episode of "Talk of the Nation" regarding what farmers think of Michael Pollan and alternative farming methods. Pollan and proponents of new farm methods have received criticism, from elitist thinking to the notion that farmers are the victims. While it is always good to hear, what Pollan calls a "counter-offensive" to the proposed new farming methods, I don't quite buy some these opposing arguments.

Conventional farmer Blake Hurst, writer of the column "The Omnivore's Delusion: Against the Agri-Intellectuals", suggests in the NPR interview that he does have a choice as a farmer:

CONAN: And you have choices in what you do and how you do it?

Mr. HURST: Well, certainly I do. The road goes right by my house. I can get on it and leave at any time. I can put different products on it and sell them at any time. I choose to grow corn and soybeans because that's - which first of, I challenge the monoculture - corns, grass, soybeans are a legume. We rotate them year after year. That allows us to now use, you know, we use absolutely no insecticides because different insects attack different crops. So first off, I do not believe I'm in a monoculture. My friends in Southern Missouri grow rice, wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans. So they have lots of variety in the things they grow. But I'm not trapped at all. It's a free society. I choose to do what I'm doing. I'm proud to be doing it and I enjoy it.

CONAN: And when you read Michael Pollan's work - I read your article and you said he's depicting you and other farmers as being, well, either dupes of commercial interests or, well, not so bright.

Mr. HURST: Well, yeah. I mean, he says I'm - the agribusiness is hiding behind me, like when I wrote the article Monsanto was in the room with me. I mean, you know, my wife helped me sound out some of the big words, but other than that, I did it on my own, and I'm not a tool of anybody.

Hurst may be challenging the monoculture by rotating his crops of grass, soybeans and corn, and he and other conventional farmers discuss the benefits of no-till farming, but growing just soybeans and corn isn't such a great idea. But herein lies the problem: Farmers need to diversify their crops, yet, there needs to be a market to buy these products. Conventional farmers will continue to use GM seeds unless they are presented with a profitable alternative: Strong, local marketplaces of individuals, families and business that will make an effort to buy local produce.

Further, farmers are incredibly capable and intellect individuals; those who suggest otherwise - excluding Pollan - clearly don't appreciate their career. However, when profit is at the center of any career - which is basically all of them under capitalism - people don't always choose the most ethical practices. I'm also not saying that these farmers are the puppets of capitalism. Many of these farmers, especially in the Midwest, have tons of land that they need to make profitable to make a living. And, selling to agribusiness does ensure that farmers' products get out on the market because selling directly to consumers may not be an option. However, if I inherited 6,000 acres of land, I would consider other options, including using the land and farm as an experiment for alternative farming research, specifically biodynamic, and open it up as a teaching farm. Remember, the farming debate is lively, but further conversation will cease if younger generations don't learn how to farm and to explore more sustainable, responsible alternatives.

Agri-intellectuals can overlook the fact that some farmers just don't have a surrounding demographic to support them. Yet, continuing to grow and support monocultures is a step in the wrong direction. Working with neighboring cities and larger, privately-owned grocery stores may the first step in cultivating community ties. But, if my life's work was farming, I would want to make sure that my name and farm goes on the product and doesn't remain a nameless ingredient sold through large companies.

What do you think? Listen to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" here.