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 21st century:
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 -- crops.
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’
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
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
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
“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
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
“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 and Plastic.”
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,
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 products."
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
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 state.
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 left.
“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 and corporations.
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 would.
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 ears.
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
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.