Friday, April 27, 2012

Finding Our CommonGround

I just returned from a 3 day trip to New York City volunteering for an organization called CommonGround, ( a group of farm women whose mission it is to tell folks about what we do (and don’t do) on our farms. Our goal is to connect the face of America’s farmers with the food you all buy from the grocery store. There is a misperception that the food you find in the grocery store is grown by “corporate” farms. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here is a picture of our “corporation”:

Do you know that 98% of all the farms in the US are family owned & operated?  The bulk of the food you buy at the grocery store, unless it was imported, was grown by an American farm family.

So back to my trip to New York City. Each day was filled radio interviews and deskside meetings with magazine editors, all to promote agriculture and family farms. We got some really interesting questions but three in particular standout to me: During one radio interview, the radio personality asked “So are you the anti-organic agriculture organization?” Oh my goodness no! While I’ve blogged about the similarities between organic agriculture and the way we farm, I believe there is a market for both agricultural systems. My point however, is that studies have not shown that organic farming produces safer or more nutritious foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a review of 50 years worth of data which though limited, did not show a significant difference in nutrient value between organic and conventional foods. The nutrient content of food is derived from the nutrient value and quality of the soil. Sustainability is not based on a cookie-cutter system, nor does one farming system “lay claim” to certain practices as being “theirs”. We de-certified our organic ground specifically because it was not sustainable for our operation. I can’t stress enough – you cannot have a cookie-cutter system that applies across all farms. We do not believe in plowing and the susceptibility to erosion that plowing creates. Soil is our farm’s greatest asset. We need to keep it and build it, not expose it and erode it. For that reason, we no longer farm organically. We do use both organic and synthetic chemicals to control for pests and diseases. To us, that is the measure of sustainability, not whether something is organic or conventional. Its a balance of economics and environment, not an either-or situation.

The other episode that surprised me was when I was at our booth at the Editor’s Showcase, which is a tradeshow for editors. A woman approached our booth and said that she no longer ate meat since she watched a video of inhumane treatment of livestock. I responded by asking “You do know that does not represent the majority of family farmers and is not the “norm” for livestock farmers, right?” She said “No, really?” She honestly appeared to be utterly convinced by a single video that the bad apples in farming were representative of all farmers. I am not going to sit here and tell you that all farmers are doing the right thing, just like not all doctors, lawyers, police, or teachers are doing the right thing. But a few bad apples do not represent the entire profession. It was a message that repeated itself several times. Honestly, these were sincere, well-educated people who seemed to have been totally swayed into believing that what they saw on a video was the standard treatment of farm animals. How sad that folks are so disconnected from the farm that they will believe misinformation about an entire profession.

I feel fortunate to have been asked to attend this outreach effort on behalf of CommonGround. If what I said helped one person understand where their food comes from and the faces behind American farmers, then I will have accomplished a great deal.

Another interesting question that came up frequently – who funds you? CommonGround is funded by checkoff dollars from soybean and corn farmers. What this means is that when a farmer sells corn or soybeans, a portion of the sale price of each bushel goes into a fund that pays for research, marketing programs and promotion of those commodities. So American farmers are funding their own progress and programs. A really recognizable use of checkoff dollars is the “Got Milk” mustache campaign, which is a dairy funded checkoff program. It is the soybean and corn farmer checkoff dollars that support the programs of CommonGround, but the women in the organization are all volunteers. CommonGround is funded by farmers, it is our message that we are communicating, and no one else's message.

To find more information about your food and who grows it, I encourage you to visit CommonGround’s website and watch some of the videos made by other farm women who are also volunteering their time to educate folks about food and farming. It is a great resource to learn about your food.

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