Want to know what life is like on a working conventional onion farm, and the day to day musings of a real life onion farmer? That's what you will read about, plus posts for music, weird news clips, and stories about my lobbying in behalf of agricultural public policy!
At your wonderful dinner yesterday did you eat any of these?
Not those … these:
Do you wonder how they got from point A to point B … your plates?
That’s only part of the story …
Ever wonder what happens when a entire crop is obliterated?
Ever wonder how we work with elected officials and politicos to bring about positive public policy for farmers?
If any of these things are either of importance or interest to you then please support my project and spread the word. My memoir tells the story of what’s involved in growing a crop and working with the powers that be to develop smart public policy.
And either way … eat more onions and thank you for your support … this Bud’s for you!
But, I’m now down to 19 days to go and Kickstarter is “all or nothing.” If I don’t make my goal then I get zero funding!
We can do this!
Why is this important?
In yesterday’s issue of Politico current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was interviewed. In the article entitled “Tom Vilsack: Farming ‘under-appreciated'” It states in part:
As you look at your (hopefully) full plate this Thanksgiving, take a guess at what percentage of your annual income you spend on food. Whatever you guessed, you probably guessed too high.
“We pay as low as 6 percent,” Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, was telling me at a conference table in his office. “In most other industrialized countries it’s 20 to 25 percent.” And if you were spending that much on food in America, Vilsack asks, “How big a house would you have? How nice a car?” In addition to being a relatively small amount of our incomes, our supply of edibles is virtually guaranteed. “America does not really have to depend on the rest of the world for food,” Vilsack says….
Only 1 percent of the U.S. population actually farms. Though Vilsack and his wife own a farm in Iowa, nobody in their family has worked a farm since his great-great-grandfather. But, Vilsack says, one out of every 12 jobs in America is connected to agriculture….
“It’s tied to national security,” he says. “In 40 years, we will have to increase agriculture by 70 percent globally to feed the world.” But the amount of land devoted to agriculture is shrinking — think climate change and urban development — and because of that, farmers will have to produce more food with less land and less water.
“And if you think the world is unsafe today, wait until we have serious fights over food and water,” Vilsack says. Enter the American farmer. “Farming is under-appreciated and misunderstood,” Vilsack says. “It is a sophisticated business.” It is also a business whose practitioners are aging. The average age of a farmer on a commercial-size farm is probably close to 60, Vilsack says, and it’s hard work. “There are three times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 25,” he says.
That’s sort of the point I made yesterday when I talked about the woman who believed vegetables grow on trees. They don’t, but, I don’t think she is the only person out there so clueless about farming.
My memoir talks about what is involved in being a farmer. It also talks about how Eve and I have gone about the past 17 years to educate the public and elected officials about what we are experiencing and ways in which the situation can be improved. And what’s detailed can be a road map for you to improve your situation!
Once again I greatly appreciate the support and humbly you ask for your continued help to get this done!
Why do we need, “we” meaning our society, my memoir “Muckville: Farm Policy, Media and the Strange Oddities of Semi-Rural Life” to be published and widely disseminated?
Allow me to introduce you to this young lady who back in 2008 testified before the Santa Cruz City Council on May 13, 2008. Much of her testimony focused on agriculture.
Please watch her testimony now. It’s only 2:35 long:
You’re laughing … I know. Stop laughing, or at least reduce it to a giggle please.
You see, if my book isn’t published and doesn’t become widely available how will people like her learn about the onion trees that I grow my crop on?
You’re laughing … I’m laughing … sort of … yes, this young woman might be equal parts drug influenced and a level of stupid of epic proportions but believe it or not … she is not unique.
Did you notice one person clapped at the end of her presentation? Did you notice you could see not one person on the floor laughing in hysterics at the end of her presentation? Yes, some, probably most, were just being courteous and nice, but I would bet not everyone was simply being courteous and nice.
I would bet there were others in the room that believed land is free and vegetables grow on trees.
As I said, she is not unique. I have come across via the internet, and in person mind you, many many many many many many many many many many many people that rival her in regards to her utter and complete lack of understanding of farming practices and our production realities. There are people that sincerely believe fresh produce is simply produced in the back room of the grocery store, the place the men and women that wear the aprons that scurry back and forth from, rolling the fresh produce out on those carts to put on the store shelf. It’s produced by magic, you know.
You see, we as a society are so far removed from farming we have lost much of our basic understanding and perspective regarding the simple facts as to how food is grown and the overall importance and impacts of farming in general.
The following is an excerpt from Muckville that discusses this:
Farming is one of the oldest, yet it is now one of the most unique professions in this country. Currently, though representing a mere 1.2% of the overall GDP for the U.S. economy agriculture represents roughly 9.2% of U. S. exports. Roughly .7% of the labor force is employed in farming, forestry and fishing and it is estimated that roughly only 2% of the U. S. population is involved in farming on some level. If you add processors, outlets and related industries the number increases to 15%. But, only 2% to 3% are really only directly employed or work on a farm. That means that every on-farm job helps create 5 – 7 related industry jobs. That is a pretty impressive positive economic impact.
Of course, in some states agriculture is one of, if not the most important industry. This includes, surprising to some, New York State, where agriculture, outside of New York City, is one of the largest and most important industries in the state. But, times have changed. In Orange County where we live, agriculture is still the #1 industry, and its economic impacts are still very important on a local and state basis.
Even as recently as 1955 between 10% to 15% of American workers worked in agriculture. Today there are roughly 3.3 million U.S. farm operators but those farms produce enough food that U.S. consumers each year spend about a half trillion dollars on various food products that are produced on U.S. farms. What we don’t always understand is that we in the U. S. have one of the world’s cheapest food supplies. U. S. consumers spend just 10% of their disposable income each year to pay their food bill. For comparison that figure in France is 15%, China 33% and the Philippines it’s 37%. But for every dollar spent on food the farmer receives about 16% of it. The average age of a U.S. farmer is 57 years old. And today each American farmer produces enough food/fiber to feed 154 people in the U.S. and abroad. These are just some of the facts folks.
If you look at the figures above, that $0.16 of the food dollar that the farmer receives generates $0.80 to $1.12 in related businesses. To put this into perspective, one of the arguments for bailing out General Motors was that its demise would have a negative ripple effect across support businesses that would be as large as the funds invested in GM. Agriculture has much less control over its own destiny than the auto industry. And its ripple effect is much greater.
What does this all mean? Our nation’s history and roots are inextricably tied into farming. Farming is still a major part of our economy, including being a key part of our export economy, and everyone has to eat. Yet, it is an industry and vocation that few people today have a direct connection to. Nor do they have a good grasp of in terms of the sophisticated, multi-faceted production, marketing and economic realities surrounding it.
(end of excerpt … back to blog)
That’s one aspect of Muckville … informing people about the production realities associated with farming. But that’s only half of what Muckville is about. Muckville is also about informing people, educating people about what is involved in formulating smart public policy. Much of Muckville is all about the sorts of things Eve and I did to bring about positive changes, from the grassroots level, to laws, regulations and general public policies connected to farming.
Why is this important, or, more importantly, important to you?
First, if people like Eve and I and other farmers don’t do it, don’t work hard to bring our voices to the table in terms of formulating sound public policy positions on various farm related issues, well, more clueless people will fill that void and do it for us.
People like our friend who testified before the Santa Cruz City Council. Sad reality, I would actually count her as a “friend” of farmers. There are people out there, many people out there, who are virtually as disconnected and uninformed as her but are not benign in terms of their positions. They are not friends of farmers and they stake out positions, or are simply manipulated by people who are not as clueless, to back positions and policies extremely harmful to our industry.
This affects you, because you eat, daily (or at least you are supposed to) and I firmly believe maintaining a healthy domestic farming industry is not just wise public policy, it’s a matter of national security.
The second reason why Muckville should be important to you is that what I detail in the book you can use as a roadmap in terms of working on any issue of importance locally to you. In other words, what we did you can do. I spell it all out.
So, Muckville is about informing, educating and entertaining … it provides a great deal “behind the scenes” details as to how one can influence public policy. It enables you to make better choices in terms of supporting to backing various issues or positions connected with agriculture.
Please, back my Kickstarter campaign. Spread the word to your friends. Help me to be able to afford an editor, to get this work polished and get it to a willing and eager publisher.
It’s the weekend and we are still moving forward. As of noon on Sunday I now have 23 backers and have reached 17% of my funding goal.
So, we are continuing to move forward but this is a huge weekend and week coming up!
A special shout out to all of my public policy and media/news friends. many of you are mentioned in the memoir! Very positively, for the most part, I might add. Hey, I’m just telling the truth as to what Eve and I have experienced over the years and so many of you have played a part in helping us help our community, either via your actions in your positions or via accurately telling our story and helping us get the word out!
Thanks again to all of you that have backed me so far and have spread the word! I greatly appreciate it. Just like years ago I just knew we would be successful in obtaining the eventual special earmark we obtained as part of the 2002 Farm Bill I see myself some day, in the very near future, talking about “Muckville” and sharing how others can imitate what we did in terms of grassroots activism!
This piece details just some of our public policy activities!
Back in September I posted my prologue and the note from Eve. Since I am in the midst of this Kickstarter campaign I think I should post them again. Sort of explains my book and why this project should matter to you:
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.
How wonderful is my wife? Check out this video from back in 2001 when she called in to C-Span to talk about the Farm Bill and how vegetables and fruits are typically short-changed when it comes to federal agriculture policy:
It is now the third story she has interviewed me on the farm. And now the 3rd time my dad has gotten a good look at her. After the first story on the farm, which took place during the late winter in early March she was all bundled up and my dad didn’t really get a good look at her. Afterwards he said to me, “she’s too short, I’d throw her back.” I replied with, “what is she, a fish.” And my dad replied with, “yeah, she’s no keeper.”
Well, after the last 2 stories, after he has gotten a good look at her up close, his position has changed. He chatted with her multiple times on Friday, and told some of his basic stories and jokes.
Later, after she left and as he and I were on our way to spray our onions he said:
“That Meredith, she’s something else … if something happens to Gracie (my mom) I’m going to be giving her a call.”
Now, will this eventually translate into something he couldn’t get from her predecessor, Elaina Athans, a hug? Even a “full hug,” with a pat and a sway?