Washington Bureau Chief
“Enter by their door so as to come out by your door.”
I try to live by this piece of Ignatian wisdom. It’s empathetic and hopeful, and it reminds me that if I want someone to change, not just their actions but their minds and hearts, I have to understand them as people first. Bringing people to see things the way I see them starts with meeting people where they are.
I’m still young, but I’ve noticed something about the world. There are a lot of things that could be better.
Frankly, too much for any one person to address. There are not enough hours in the day, nor is my (or anyone’s) capacity for love or pain great enough to care for every injustice, every displaced, abused, or murdered human, plant, animal, or culture. So we pick our battles and we dig in our heels and we fight as long and hard as we can for our little piece of change.
If you’ve read any of my other Medium stories, you might have guessed that my little piece of change has something to do with the food system. I’ve been living and learning in and around agriculture for about two decades, and I’ve sampled the whole spectrum. From hobby farms to million egg-a-day operations, from farms run with computers to Burkinabé homesteads where farming practices are as old as culture itself. I’ve worked with the children of South African farm workers whose lives have been poisoned by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I’ve drank tea in a house where tea was all there was to eat that day, and I’ve eaten meals so playful inspired that they are less food than art.
I’ve seen the injustice and inefficiencies of the food system. I’ve seen hot tears well in farmers’ eyes as they describe the stress that keeps them up at night, the bleakness of their outlook on their legacy, their desire to change but their crippling inability to do so.
I’ve been welcomed by friendly and happy farm workers, their lives filled with hope despite the shameful way they are treated, and the even more shameful way the abuses they suffer are made invisible.
I’ve seen mountainous piles of fresh produce carted off to landfills. I’ve shopped the only grocery store in Harlan, Kentucky, which has no fresh food section. I’ve walked the streets of D.C. and Oakland, looking in vein for a market among the liquor stores and fast food places. I’ve seen (and felt) what sugar addiction looks like. I’ve seen what obesity does to children and to adults. I’ve seen hunger.
There is so, so much that could, and must, be done.
But if I want to go in someone else’s door in the food system, I have to start with understanding them; and I believe the truest way to understand a culture is to be part of it. I grew up on a farm, so if there was a door which I could go through in the food system, it is the Farmer’s door.
So I talk to farmers, and from time to time, I try to use my voice on behalf of farmers.
I’ve talked to hundreds, maybe thousands, of farmers across the country and around the world. They are my people. But like all people, they are not perfect.
Shifts in the food system aren’t always easy or good for farmers, and they often fight them. And it’s hard for me to square my beliefs with my (and their) experience. I believe in sustainability and conservation and ethical production. And in the heartland, these are not always popular ideas.
So I had a choice. Do I champion the niche of truly sustainable producers (who are too often creating food that’s only accessible to the wealthy), or do I tone down my rhetoric, dive into the belly of the beast, and do my best to create options for farmers and hope that they will choose the options that I believe are right? It’s an enormous exercise in trust, and at the end of the day, all of my work my lead to no change at all.
But I have to believe that if I go in through the farmer’s door, if we meet commodity corn and soybean farmers, farmers who spray carcinogenic chemicals and expose black earth and siphon hog waste into poisonous lagoons, where they are, in a world where they will struggle this year to keep the lights on and food on the table, that we can earn their trust, and help them find a better way. If we crack open the food production system and amplify a farmers ability to choose different practices, maybe they will.
To me, this is the practical approach to making a change at the root of the food system. Is it guaranteed to bring about the changes we hope for? No. In that way, it is a precarious road to walk. But does it promise to treat farmers with respect? Does it interrupt the cycle of apathy and greed that has characterized too much of American agriculture in a way that could turn a viscous cycle into a virtuous one? If we meet the farmers who own and work the vast majority of American farmland where they are, rather than shouting at them from the place where we think they should be, we might find the kind of change we’re hoping for.
Do I get to wake up and pat myself on the back everyday? No. It could still all go wrong. But if I vigilantly go in the doors of others without losing sight of my own, of what I believe in, then I think, I can keep my soul off the market.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, a click on the green heart below would be wonderful. Looking forward to comments from disagreers! Then, you might enjoy exploring what exactly farming is (and isn’t). @sarah_k_mock
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