fellow Americans: It is with great pleasure that I
bring you a very special message today from the President
... of the United States. (Hey! That woke up the back row.)
Seriously, this message is from our leader in Washington.
I’m not talking about President George W. Bush, though.
While I am a registered Republican in a blue state, President
Bush and I are not exactly penpals. This message is from another
George. Another “Dubya,” in fact. The message
I have here comes from President George Washington, the Father
of Our Country ... and our first Commander In Chief.
“No measure, in my opinion, will be more conducive
to the public weal than the establishment of this Society
... Much is to be wished that each State would institute similar
ones; & that these Societies when formed would correspond
regularly & freely with each other.”
That letter was written July 19, 1785. The occasion was President
Washington’s being elected an honorary member of the
Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, the nation’s
first agricultural society, which was founded five months
earlier that year. That Society was the great, great, great,
great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfather
of Practical Farmers of Iowa. (That’s 11 greats, if
you were trying to count.)
Like you, it’s members conducted on-farm research on
their own farms. They had to. There were no land grant universities
in those days, no experiment stations, no Extension Service
and no Department of Agriculture.
Out of necessity, these men used their own land, their own
equipment and their own money to search for answers to problems
that plagued them all. What did these early on-farm researchers
explore at the end of the Eighteenth century? Many of the
same things you are studying today ... at the start of the
How to control pests.
The Mad Cow Disease of their age, the Hessian fly, was such
a problem that King George III banned American wheat from
entering Britain in 1788.
How to improve the soil
with gypsum and marl.
New -- more profitable --
Improved livestock genetics.
The relationship between
crop rotation, planting clover and spreading manure.
For seven years, George Logan studied crop rotations on
family land that had been granted to his grandfather by
William Penn. His 14 research plots proved the best rotation
for southeastern Pennsylvania included Indian corn, potatoes,
wheat, winter barley, clover ... and pasture.
I first learned about the Philadelphia Society for Promoting
Agriculture 20 years ago when I was asked to speak about organic
farming during their bicentennial celebration. I couldn’t
believe it. An agricultural society -- in Philly? Yo! Youse
gotta be kiddin’ me!
That’s pretty much the reaction University of Pennsylvania
history professor Simon Baatz got from friends when he revealed
he was writing the 200-year history of the Society. “Most
people ... reacted with faint incredulity. An agricultural
society ... in that sprawling industrial metropolis where
farms and farmers were surely few and far between? In the
fifth largest city in the United States? Even if such a society
still existed (which it still does), what lessons could we
learn from its past of any benefit to the history of science
and American social history?”
Quite a lot, actually. Baatz’ book totals 124 pages.
“The Society faced problems, difficulties, and challenges
similar to those experienced by other scientific institutions
in the United States.
First and most obvious, there was the eternal challenge of
funding. The search of scientists and scientific societies
for patronage is a leitmotif in the history of American science,”
the professor wrote.
Even though its members were -- and still are -- among the
wealthiest men in the nation, “The Philadelphia Society
for Promoting Agriculture was never exempt from the need to
present its intellectual concerns, achievements, and aspirations
in ways that would generate support.
“For the Philadelphia Society to receive patronage
it had to demonstrate its utilitarian function. Much of the
Society’s activity in its first 80 years consisted of
attempts to display publicly its usefulness to American society:
the annual exhibitions, an agricultural college and an experimental
farm were all worthy projects attempted with varying degrees
of success. The membership of the society was exclusively
patrician. Yet because the survival of the Society depended
on creating and maintaining a public perception of the Society’s
utility, it was forced to eschew a polite science in favor
of the muddy reality of American farming and its problems.”
The reality of American farming and its problems has never
been muddier than it is today.
When Farm Aid came to western Pennsylvania in 2002, the music
was great, as always. But concert-goers and Country Music
TV fans got gypped. They missed the real show on saving family
farms. That came two days later at a nearby resort. It was
the 124th Annual Convention of PennAg Industries, a trade
association of 635 businesses that sell seed, feed and chemicals
to farmers in Pennsylvania. The theme was:
“Seeking a Balance: Is There Room for Both Large-Scale,
Commercial Farms and Smaller, Sustainable Farms?”
The first speaker was a man who does not deserve to be named.
He was a former State Department agricultural analyst who
has made a career -- and quite a good living -- out of badmouthing
anyone who questions the status quo. He told them exactly
what they wanted to hear: That we can solve all of our problems
with more of the same -- piled higher and deeper. His recent
book title says it all -- “Saving the Planet with Pesticides
On Page 171, under the heading “Lower Yields on Organic
Farms,” he mentions the Thompson farm: “The Iowa
corn-soybean farm had corn and soybean yields comparable to
those of other farms in the area. But ... two years out of
five each field was in oats or meadow and thus virtually out
of effective production.”
That guy just doesn’t get it, does he? If the scores
of newborn calves I saw prancing around the meadow at the
Thompson farm last night are “virtually out of effective
production,” we should all be such ineffective producers.
With “this week’s tumble in prices,” as
ISU market news director Doug Cooper said on the radio just
yesterday, it sounds like a splendid time to start raising
less corn -- and more hell.
It’s an old problem. In 1844 -- nearly 70 years after
the start of the American Revolution -- John Stewart Skinner
complained that American agriculture was still too “colonial.”
Skinner was editor of a farm newspaper called The Plough,
The Loom And The Anvil. "There is a perpetual surplus
of corn, and tobacco, and wheat, and cotton, and all other
products of the field. It is sold at low prices, yielding
little to the producer, while destroying the man with whom
it comes in competition."
Just a few years ago, Iowa State’s Neil Harl called
our agriculture feudal, and our farmers “serfs.”
Guess that makes us farmers the last American Colonists. Everybody
else gets the gold mine. We get the shaft. But it doesn’t
have to be that way. The answers to our problems have been
around for a long, long time, too.
Skinner went on to say: "The plough and the harrow cannot
prosper at a distance from the loom and the anvil. A home
market is the great desire of every farmer and every planter.
Everyone knows that the nearer he can bring his customers
to him, the more valuable are his labor, his land, and their
Proof of that is reported regularly in USDA statistics. Since
just 1990 the farmer’s share of the food dollar has
shrunk from 30 cents to only 19 cents, according to USDA.
And that’s why the next speaker at the Penn Ag conference
made such an uncommon amount of common sense. Dr. Fred Kirschenmann,
director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
at Iowa State University, brought the audience to the edge
of its seats. He told them what they needed to hear: You may
be next on the unemployment line.
Fully 61 percent of our agricultural commodities now come
from only 163,000 very large farms, the majority of which
produce under contract, he said. At the other end of the spectrum,
we have 1.3 million farms with only 9 percent of agricultural
sales. In the middle are 575,000 farms that account for 30
percent of production. Those are the farmers at greatest risk
of getting squeezed out of business by low commodity prices
and high production costs.
If that trend continues, Kirschenmann said, one scenario
for Iowa is that vast areas will be largely depopulated. Only
130 production units of 250,000 acres each will dominate the
Will the managers of those mega-farms come to you for their
supplies? he asked the input suppliers. No way! Like Wal-Mart,
they will buy only from the low-cost supplier -- and you will
be out of business. That may happen within 50 years, some
experts say. Kirschenmann fears we might have only 15 years
“What kind of future do we want?” he asked.
It’s up to producers and consumers to decide, because
we are, in fact, “co-producers,” as Slow Food
founder Carlo Petrini describes us. We are all in this together.
We can stay with a failed economic system of subsidies, or
develop new production and marketing systems that are better
for farmers, consumers and the environment, as well as new
public policies that support communities, instead of commodities
Practical Farmers of Iowa started a modern-day agricultural
revolution. In the last 20 years, scores of similar groups
have sprung up around the United States and other countries.
And they now “correspond regularly & freely with
each other,” just as President Washington wished they
The one I know best is the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable
Agriculture. I am a life member and have served on its board
of directors for four years. Like PFI, PASA’s main focus
is on-farm education, field days and practical demonstrations
of more profitable production and marketing systems. But like
the Philadelphia Society before it, PASA quickly learned the
hard way that we ignore politics at our own peril.
The factory hog farm lobby tried to sneak into Pennsylvania
a few years ago by proposing an amendment to our Right To
Farm law. PASA members blitzed key legislators. Our food customers
joined the fight.
Legislators, it seems, take public comment as seriously as
a heart attack. They figure that for every person who makes
a phone call, writes a letter or sends an e-mail, at least
100 more feel exactly the same way. The fight went right down
to the wire. After 15 straight hours of bickering, the House
adjourned at 12:30 a.m., on Thanksgiving Day, without a vote
and the bill was dead.
A similar stunt almost worked last year when much the same
language was slipped into a popular crime bill that few legislators
bothered to read closely. PASA rallied the troops again. And
the governor killed the bill with a veto.
And that’s just at the state level. Imagine what’s
going on right now at the national level. The Washington Post
reported last week that the number of registered lobbyists
has doubled since the year 2000. We now have 34,785 registered
lobbyists in our nation’s capitol. Starting salary is
close to $300,000 a year. Corporations large and small are
doubling or tripling their lobbying budgets. They see the
next few years as a rare opportunity to get exactly what they
want from Washington.
With work starting on a new farm bill, all of us involved
with sustainable agriculture need to be represented as much
as possible. I have a hunch we will be.
Of the hundreds of photographs I’ve shot of Dick Thompson
over the years, my favorite photo shows Dick behind a podium
at USDA headquarters in Washington, explaining his practical
-- profitable -- farming system. Over his right shoulder towers
the American flag and a life-sized portrait of President Ronald
Reagan. Before him, various under-secretaries and government
scientists sit around a big table scratching their ... unbelieving
Mr. Thompson went to Washington. Washington listened. And
today we have SARE, Kathleen Delate at ISU and at least 100
other very good things that we couldn’t even begin to
imagine 20 years ago.
Wendell Berry says eating is an agricultural act. Chef Alice
Waters says eating is an economic act. They’re both
wrong, or at least only partially right. Eating is the ultimate
political act. How we Americans spend -- or don’t spend
-- our food dollars speaks louder than the levers we pull
in voting booths.
With your practical focus on people, profit and permanence
in agriculture, Practical Farmers of Iowa has more going for
it than the Philadelphia Society ever did. Why, just the Thompsons’
2005 annual report is nearly twice as long as the Philadelphia
society’s 200-year history. Remember, the Philadelphia
society was made up of the landed gentry and soon ended up
farming the farmers. That’s why in 1823 a rival farm
group wrote in its constitution that all of its officers “shall
be PRACTICAL FARMERS.”
So, when PFI’s bicentennial rolls around 180 years
from now, I have a hunch there will be a lot more to celebrate.
You may even get the president at the time here for the party.
Who knows? That’s the funny thing about our government.
When people lead, sooner or later, our leaders follow, starting
with President Washington.