I’ve written a memoir about my experiences on our 4th generation family onion farm and my very active volunteer public policy/advocacy experiences over the years (http://bit.ly/SGwZb8). I’m an outstanding researcher, a fantastic first draft writer but not a very good editor. My wife typically edits my work but this memoir is just too long (over 106K words) and personally too painful for her to tackle. Remember “The Farmer’s Wife” documentary that ran on PBS a few years ago (http://to.pbs.org/aUdsi)? The shared experiences and similar pain made it too hard for my wife to watch (see: http://bit.ly/WcHTrM). So, since my memoir details some painful memories my wife can’t do it. I need to hire an editor and being over $250K in the hole makes hiring an editor impossible without help (http://bit.ly/wpxL5z).
Once my first draft is edited it will be far more likely a book publisher or a literary agent will take it on. Now, obviously there are no guarantees that it will be published, but, I can assure you I’m a very good writer and I have had numerous unique experiences over the years, including securing a $10 million dollar special earmark that was part of the 2002 Farm Bill, testifying before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, meeting and working with dozens of elected officials, including former Senator Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, current Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, amongst many others. I’ve also appeared in the media hundreds of times over the years, from the national press like CNN and the CBS Evening News and the NY Times to various trade publications and local press, to recently The Hindu and the BBC. I’ve even been quoted in Vogue (http://bit.ly/OqeFeJ). Now, come on, how many farmers do you know quoted in Vogue? Just google my name to see how often I’ve appeared in the media.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a speech delivered back in December of 2012, said:
“It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.” http://yhoo.it/VTM2fJ
I think he’s dead wrong, and it is exactly the opposite of what I relate in my book. We in rural America have been and continue to be relevant.
And my book is a positive story, because if you watch the cable talk shows and read people like Matt Taibbi (who I like very much) you walk away with the impression that the average citizen like you and I can never cause positive change, not without spending a lot of money. Well, no one has ever paid me, I have never donated anything to any politician. Not once have we ever been asked to do a fund raiser or donate, or even vote for the public official we work with. Hard to believe, but true. My story is in the end a positive, uplifting narrative.
Further, farmers and farming stories are really under-represented in the general media. I explain what is involved to grow and sell an onion, and how much, or rather, how little we make. It’s an inside story, one that chain stores don’t want the average consumer to know. I want to tell that story, to an even wider audience, hence why I have written the book and look to make it a commercial success.
I have a story that needs to be told. I’ve done the hard part in terms of the research and writing the first draft. That’s done. I’m almost to the finish line. Can you help me cross it by helping me edit and complete the work, making it more marketable to a literary agent or publishing house?
The following is a prologue and the note from Eve from my yet unpublished memoir, “Muckville: Farm Policy, Media and the Strange Oddities of Semi-Rural Life.”
Muckville. I can see you asking yourself now
Why should I care about a book about farming? Or one about public policy advocacy and dealing with the media? Or a about a book that combines the realities of farming with agriculture-specific policy, advocacy and dealing with the media?
We all have to eat. Every day if possible. Day after day. Until we die we have to eat. Food, along with breathable air, clean water and adequate shelter is one of our most basic needs. Since there are roughly 3.3 million farmers in the U.S. comprising roughly 2% of the general population, odds are you have never met a farmer. Despite the growth in popularity of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and local farmers’ markets it is most likely you have never met, spoken, smelled or touched a farmer. Or set foot on a farm.
Though the United States was once a primarily an agricultural society and even as recently as the turn of the previous century roughly 40% of the population farmed, since then, and especially since the advancements associated with Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” fewer and fewer farmers on less and less land space have produced one of the world’s safest, most abundant and cheapest food supplies.
And with that change has come an incredible level of disconnect between the people who primarily produce our food and the citizens who eat it. Sadly, when you mention the word farmer the first image that will pop into someone’s head will be Eddie Albert’s character Oliver Wendell Douglas from the CBS sitcom “Green Acres.” Or worse, some character from one of the various reality TV shows that keep popping up, and frequently aren’t so real.
Though farmers’ markets are exploding across the country and thanks to the foodie movement there is a strong renewed interest in agriculture, much of the information about farmers is not coming from us. Food critics and chefs will frequently pontificate about farming, and though some of them may have a small hobby farm, for the most part they are not farmers. They do not know what it is like, on a day to day basis, to be a farmer in the 21st century.
I simply don’t have enough heads for all the hats I have to wear. I have to be a soil scientist, a chemist, a financial planner, an accountant, a bookkeeper, a regulator, a marketer and frequently a public relations person and public policy advocate.
Farming today is governed by a myriad of laws and regulations that cover numerous aspects of our business on multiple levels. And there are so many groups, organizations and pressures out there trying to influence or change those laws and regulations on a seemingly daily basis.
In the mid 1990’s after leaving the farm a short time to pursue my graduate degree and after I married my wonderful wife Eve, I returned to the family onion farm. My brother and I are the fourth generation of the same family on a farm that started in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. As soon as I returned I started dealing with a variety of issues and crises, including weather disasters and various labor advocacy organizations. I was baptized by fire. Eve and I had to learn, for the most part on our own, how to fight for our farm and our industry. It wasn’t easy at first (for the most part it still isn’t now, 17 years later). But, trial by fire typically isn’t.
So why is this all important to you? Because as I said, we all have to eat. It’s one of our most fundamental needs. You should know something about how your food is produced. Not from sitcoms, or from food critics or from chefs, no matter how well intentioned they may be. You should know from one of us who produces it.
Now, there are some books out there written by farmers about farming. Many of those books are about the adventures of people who eschew urban or suburban life to move to the country and take up farming. They extol the benefits of a more simple life.
That’s not the point of this book.
Life is not simple, nor, quite frequently, very fair. A hailstorm that decimates your crop mid season or a hurricane caused flood that wipes virtually your entire crop away is not fair. And how you deal with those scenarios is anything but simple. I’ve dealt with those situations, sadly, more than once. I’ve also dealt with very stupid government programs and terrible proposed legislation. And over the years my wife and I have had a fair number of successes in dealing with such situations. That’s what this book details.
Though it is a memoir about my specific experiences on the farm and in front of a camera or on Capitol Hill, what I relate, the techniques and the tricks and methods of dealing with the media or developing grassroot strategies to fight for a given issue can be applied by you. No matter what you do, or where you live, or what problem you may be facing, my example can provide you with a roadmap to how you can successfully fight for your cause.
The system is messed up. It sucks, to be quite frank. But my specific experiences show that if you are persistent and you have a fraction of a clue as to what to do, you can make a positive change for your community, too.
Why should you read this book? Because I need better informed end users of my product. I need you to understand why after a devastating hailstorm or flood I need your support and help. I need you to have a better connection with the people who produce the food you eat. And, you need to better understand the people who grow your food, and how the policy decisions can affect every aspect of the food you eat.
Why should you read this book? Just as important as learning about how your food is grown, I want you to read it and to realize that you can get off the couch and fight for your family and your community. Though the deck is stacked against you, like it is against me, you can still effect a positive change. All is not bleak. There is hope.
I want you to read this book so that the next time you walk into the produce section of your local supermarket you will pause for a moment and just think about what was involved to get those fresh vegetables and fruits on that shelf.
A NOTE FROM EVE
Muckville. That’s where we live, both literally and figuratively.
And every day something weird is happening on this farm. In the early years I kept waiting for it to end, waiting for calm. After 20 years I now realize that for better or worse, that’s just not going to happen. Part of it has to do with who I married. I think he described it best one night when we were talking about how people react to adversity. He said, “People basically fall into one of two categories: sheep or wolf. And I’m not a sheep.” I think I am a sheep who hitched a ride with a wolf. When we lost our crop to hail the first time in 1996 and our insurance turned out to be worthless and I was pregnant and large amounts of debt loomed on the horizon, I was perfectly willing to throw up my hands, quit and go do something else. In that respect I think I am like most people. Life is just easier if you can go along with the flow and avoid the pitfalls. But if everyone did that improvements would seldom if ever be made.
If I’ve surmised anything over the years, it’s that problems come about seemingly on their own resulting from a convergence of factors: a misinterpretation of a law or regulation, a quirky personality, a do-gooder who is just plain wrong, and/or a bureaucrat who refuses to do anything other than “the way it’s always been done.” The result is that change takes a lot of work but more importantly perseverance.
So what do you need to make a change? The first quality just about everyone has. It equates to “What the @#$% happened here?” The second quality many people have, “I’m mad. I’m going to complain to the proper authorities, and this will be fixed!” But there are a lot of problems out there and it is just as likely that your problem won’t be fixed. Sure some may complain for a while but at some point most people simply cut their losses and walk away grumbling. If you are really determined to make a change, it takes more than complaining. Change comes about because you can articulate exactly what is wrong and why, AND you have mapped out and researched what should be done instead. Only then do you have a chance.
Chris (God bless him) has chronicled several things we have fought to change. Some of it is humorous. a lot of it comes under “You just can’t make that up!” and parts of it I simply cannot read because it was enough for me to live through it. We hope that you will be entertained and learn a little about production agriculture along the way. But what we really hope is that maybe the next time you see a problem, you will have the courage to be a wolf.