By Amelia Kent
Our right to farm is under attack. I’m not talking about from state laws. Think in the context of our social license to farm. We see this threat in varying degrees nationwide, but this is something we, as farmers, need to face head on. In the past few months, there have been 27 lawsuits filed in North Carolina, pitting integrators and their local hog farmers as the defendants in cases where the plaintiffs allege the farms are a legal nuisance to the community and unreasonably interfere with their property. Ironically, the plaintiffs are neighbors who moved into the community of these already-established hog farms. In three of these suits, the juries ruled against Smithfield, which results in putting the farmer out of business and awarding the neighbors several million dollars.
But the neighbors are thinking they’re suing Smithfield, the integrator. A group of Texan lawyers instigated this cascade of suits, weaving racial injustice in the mix.
Not long ago, an article crossed my screen titled “Why Do Americans Have Such Contempt for the People Who Feed Them?” If that isn’t direct, I don’t know what is! Reuben Navarrette, Jr., the author, answered “It’s weather and dust. The more I think about it, the more I come back to weather and dust…. Those are the things my parents were so desperate to escape when, as pre-teens in the 1950s, they resolved to one day get a job that let them work indoors.” This article was published by the Daily Beast and actually looked at consumers and farmers in the Central Valley of California, an area that produces more than half the fruits and vegetables for the entire country, with surplus product exported around the world. The author also discusses consumer perceptions of farmers relative to labor shortage and food price. The common answer from consumers was the farmers don’t pay enough to the workers harvesting their crops. Contrary to perception, the daily wage rate for pickers in this area ranges from $200-400, and farmers still have a hard time finding enough workers.
I’ve read several articles in the past few weeks written from an urban perspective about farming, but more specifically about the people who are the farmers, and the decisions we make. While I appreciate that non-rural people are giving considerable thought to the challenges we face daily, it is very much so a dynamic of being on the outside of the fishbowl looking in. We face a unique set of career and industry challenges in agriculture. These challenges are numerous, and across many topics. I once heard of a job title as “Special Project Expert.” I joked about that meaning a jack of all trades, and for us I can’t think of a better, single job title!
But here’s the thing. Consumers do not understand most of the challenges and struggles we face on a daily basis. But they have the benefit of a cheap food supply – one that is cheaper than it should be and one in which farmers and/or their crops have been vilified. Whether it is biotechnology supposedly causing cancer, regardless of countless other variables, or the carbon footprint of our livestock and the grain they eat enhancing climate change more so than the human impact (the Atlantic published a story saying as much and prompting people to eat beans instead of beef to meet a carbon reduction goal, and some people believe that!), the perception of agriculture as a whole, and the farmers behind the food, is increasingly negative. This is thanks, in large part, to people being increasingly removed from any farm and ranch experience.
Our social license to our livelihoods – our right to farm – is being commandeered by the children and grandchildren of those who chose to leave farms to work in the air conditioning. In North Carolina the focus is on hog farms, but poultry farms are not a far reach and are suspected to be in the crosshairs next. This battle is not limited to North Carolina. These social challenges are obstacles for farmers worldwide. Whether you like it or not, we all must add advocacy to that “Special Project Expert” tool box.
Amelia Kent and her husband, Russell, raise beef cattle and hay in East Feliciana Parish. Amelia is a past chair of Louisiana’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee, is currently a member of the - Partners in Advocacy Leadership program with AFBF, and serves on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. Find them on Facebook at Kent Farms; or on Instagram and Twitter @kentfarms_la.