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Pundit’s Mailbag — Are Farmers Lonely? Or Connected On LinkedIn?

Our piece — The End of the Yeoman Farmer? — brought this poignant note:

One aspect of the small farm situation is that the lifestyle (for want of a better word: a farmer might puke at the idea of being a fashion statement) is so different from practically any other occupation that the coherent, supporting community is disappearing in many locations. So the farmer is lonely: still has the connection to the land, but not the same connection to neighbors. We go to his farm stand to buy corn and then get back in our cars and return to our lives.

Part of this difference is the encyclopedic, unwritten knowledge that a farmer must have. The number of details that exist in the brain of a farmer may be somewhat analogous to the skill-set of a hunter-gatherer. The FSMA approach requires, or moves strongly in the direction of, the development and maintenance of a parallel business that is on paper or in a computer. One critical part of GFSI Certification is having a written procedure for handling any event that is outside the documented control parameters.  HA!  Farmers have to do this instant to instant.

So, a skill-set is vanishing — as has happened countless times throughout history. To oppose the process is to be a ‘Luddite.’ On one level, it is simply very painful.

— Bob Sanderson
Owner, President
Jonathan’s Sprouts
Rochester, Massachusetts

Some years ago, as the Pundit was introducing his new bride to the produce industry, we went together to an industry event. A particular gentleman came along and introduced himself to Mrs. Pundit and self-identified himself as a farmer. This was not an incorrect assessment. He was deeply involved in farming and had consulted with the Pundit from time to time on his difficulties with selling his crop to Wal-Mart. He knows more than almost anyone about a particular crop. He and his wife are intelligent, hardworking and congenial, and they are known to wear jeans from time to time. They are most definitely farmers.

Yet Mrs. Pundit, who is knowledgeable about many subjects, found herself experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance as she had observed the farmer’s wife was wearing a particularly beautiful and quite expensive pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

We doubt farmers, as a class, are lonelier than they used to be. Yes, there are fewer farmers, and the populace is mostly ignorant about farming, so the culture that enveloped farming is not as supportive. But the farmers today generally farm much larger operations and are significantly more successful than farmers in years past.

Technology has opened the world, and rural farmers now e-mail, text, tweet and post on Facebook with the best of them, thus keeping them connected to the world. With Internet and satellite TV, the whole world is brought to the farmer’s living room. Some lonely farmers watch the futures markets update as they drive their tractors. Commercial air travel is now easily affordable and, well, for the large farmers, of which just in produce we do not have enough fingers and toes to count, there is no need to be lonely if you have a private jet!

To put this another way, farming has changed because technology now allows farmers to manage more land, plant and harvest more crops than they ever could before. Some may pine wistfully for a romantic memory of farmers plowing their fields by hand or with a mule, but few who pine are actually farmers who had to work in the hot sun doing these tasks. These people like tractors, preferably air conditioned with GPS.

Few things in life are gained without loss and, indeed, the small farmer, tilling his land, living in a community of other farmers, supported by an infrastructure and a culture so strong we scheduled school around the months that children were needed on the farm, is fading. And in that, there is loss. But in greater scale with more sophistication, there is gain, for a society that gets more plentiful and less expensive food and for the farmer who gets a more expansive life.

Perhaps the FSMA will be one more weight on the scale, a little force that further encourages scale and consolidation. If so, it will be just one of many forces pushing in that direction.

We do not think that those who see value in tradition are Luddites, but it is worth remembering that the Luddites were 19th century English textile workers who were protesting against labor-saving machinery that would take their jobs away. They weren’t fighting for the broader interests of society; they were fighting for their own self-interest.

There are many critiques that can be made of the FSMA and its impact on small farmers. The biggest is that there is no real evidence in which following these procedures actually results in safer food. If it does not, then we are imposing expenses and biasing the system against smaller scale for no reason. That would be “simply very painful” indeed.

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