Monday, August 4, 2014

Pretty Exceptional

"Benjamin Franklin extolled agriculture as "the only honest way" for "a nation to acquire wealth," in stark contrast with the alternatives of war ("plunder[ing]) and commerce ("generally cheating")."15 (Jim Chen, The American Ideology)

Reading this, I have to wonder if the estimable Mr. Franklin was speaking to some proto typical gathering of 18th century yeomen in their cleanest coats and boots.  It has the same ring as many a buttering up delivered in stirring tones by many a presumptive friend of agriculture.  To hear tell, the one percent upon which the nation stands are those folks raising commodity crops, meat, and fiber, not fabulously wealthy investors and entrepreneurs and others of their monied ilk.  We in the crowd take all this laud with a block of salt; firm in the conviction of the general usefulness of our toil and the virtue of our profession without reaping the laurels of Olympian heroics.

This is partly why it has taken so long for farmers to rise to the need to tell what is true and what is untrue about the vocation of creating food from the rawest of materials. Man is no alchemist and can neither turn sunshine to bodily fuel nor grass to protein like plants and cattle do.  But he can tend his crops and livestock; it is a high calling to be a good shepherd.

We Americans get ourselves all atwitter whenever the term 'American exceptionalism' is resuscitated.  The belief that our country is something unique among nations or  has been and hopes to be a source of inspiration and goal of aspiration has not only proponents and opponents, but a cycle as definite as sun spots. 

On the other hand, if you look up ''agricultural exceptionalism", you get a lot of academic papers dealing with labor issues and other "exceptions" that agriculture is granted as opposed to the rules other industries have to follow.  Not so uplifting, huh.  

The back and forth, the accusations, the ads, and, let's face it, the out and out lies of the Keep Missouri Farming amendment campaign have been educational and sometimes, stomach churning. As a proponent, I have heard and read plenty of what the rest of the world believes, whether behind the anonymous veil of comments on some website or the lofty pedestal of a big city editorial column. I am proud of the able and articulate defenders of farmers' use of technology, our husbandry of animals, the wholesomeness and tastiness of what we send to food processors, groceries, and even farmers'markets. Anyone with an open mind CAN get an earful of real life and has no excuse to lean on easy stereotypes or half baked theories about agriculture.

I don't know what theme is most persuasive to someone from outside of the agricultural community.  The common ground, the bedrock, the refrain of every farmer or rancher I see posting on Facebook or writing a blog or plastered on campaign materials?  The theme that sends me to my computer to look up that term 'agricultural exceptionalism', that lofty term for our daily bread?

It is a wish for continuity in agriculture...that agriculture will survive for the next generation to follow parents, grandparents, and even ancestors into the profession of farming if they so desire. I know of no other calling, (excluding military service perhaps) that expresses itself and prides itself and extends itself from generation to generation.  Why do families hope their children become farmers too?  In this day and age, it certainly isn't the need to "grow your own help", as marvelous as working side by side can be.  It isn't a  speedy or worry free trip to the "top", wherever that is.  And I don't believe that a family farm is a golden prison, trapping unsuspecting youngsters in the amber of repetition and stagnation. 

No.  These successful people want their children to follow them into farming because it has been a good life doing good work for them and they want the same happiness and fulfillment for their children. It is so much more than just a little kid's wish to ride a combine with Grandpa or honk the air horn. It is more than wanting future grandchildren close at hand.   They have found satisfaction and reward in the incalculable bounty of nature and family ties.  They have taken the measure of the pluses and minuses of staying put and voted with their boots for their home towns.  Whether or not the children become engineers, bankers, executives or novelists instead isn't important and isn't the point. The desire to carry on family farms and family farming, anachronistic as it may seem, is a crowning glory of agriculture. It is the vote of confidence in both a way of life and an honorable profession. It gives us the trump card in any discussion.  Agriculture walks the walk, honoring the past, growing the present, and hoping for the future. 

May not be "exceptional", but it's close enough.

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