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Durham: Ag education: The prophetic words of John Carew


In a couple of months, I’ll head to Washington, D.C., to “lobby” on behalf of agriculture.

Lobby? As in lobbyist? A bunch of cold-blooded fatcats in a smoke-filled room swapping a briefcase for political favors? It just sounds certifiably slimy.

I can assure you that I’m warm-blooded. And despite our newfound relationship with Cuba, I have no plans to smoke Havanas with the political elite. Nor will I be making a substantial ATM withdrawal just prior to my meetings on the Hill. What I do plan to do is articulate why agriculture is a modern day marvel, and how sound policy can ensure an ever-upward trajectory.

And what a trajectory it’s been! The science keeps rising to the challenge. Behind that body of knowledge and practice is a fanatically dedicated corps of researchers, Extensionists, and educators. And don’t forget Joe and Jane farmer.

Yet with every new breakthrough innovation, the public seems downright unimpressed — cue the crickets, maybe a yawn at best. All we seem to hear about is the outrage du jour: pesticides, GMOs, or fertilizers. When the hotbutton issues run out, raise the paranoia bar, rinse, and repeat.

Elected officials are ultimately responsible to their constituents. So ag can influence the opinions of powerbrokers by proxy — through the public! So how do we appeal to the public’s sensibilities? Some are entrenched in their opinions, they’re unswayable. And facts don’t always seem to resonate with the uninitiated, or those who identify as informed, but on the fence. Should we then finesse things with “alternative facts” to suit the narrative? Absolutely not. We’re duty-bound to maintain our lofty position on the information (and integrity) superhighway. What we can do is contextualize our successes, using alternative venues.

Let’s be realistic — though authoritative, a peer-reviewed manuscript doesn’t exactly have popular appeal. Not something you’re going to distribute in brochure form on the “agvocacy” circuit. But what about poetry? Meh, flaky tripe you say.

Yet one of the most powerful pieces of rhetoric I’ve ever seen is a poem by Dr. John Carew, a past chair of the Horticulture Department at Michigan State. Entitled “In Balance With Nature,” it chronicles the challenges of an increasingly unsympathetic public, and the horrific fallout that ensues.

In essence, well-fed busybodies get on their soapbox and wage a coordinated campaign against ag technology. Those farmers? Unimportant minority. We know what’s best [rabble rabble]! The critics win the hearts and minds of the people in a landslide. Pesticides, food preservatives, and fertilizers are summarily outlawed. Those who railed against ag are forced to become field practitioners. With centuries of progress stymied, humanity descends to war and barbarism. Civilization collapses. According to Carew, “this was called in balance with nature.” We thus come full circle, closing the loop of enlightenment with ignorance.

It’s a foreboding and chilling what-if. A cautionary tale of overt presumption and arrogance. And the ultimate in irony — foodies with a romanticized (and delusional) notion of agriculture succeeded in conjuring a “paradise” where desperation reigned. All because they hijacked the narrative.

It’s amazing how close we are to this faux reality. I picture an unruly mob flanking ag on all sides, toting pitchforks and torches to exact revenge on a grotesque, menacing beast (the caricature that’s been developed). In the minds of critics, we are the embodiment of Frankenstein’s monster!

We’ve almost become numb to the barrage of slights. Undeterred, we forge ahead with the real business at hand: a mandate to feed 9 billion to 10 billion people by 2050. Yet in the interim, we’re already seen some inklings of this anti-technology movement that Carew so expertly foretold. There have been colossal ethical lapses — dilemmas that would make philosophers’ heads explode, like the Zambian rejection of GMO corn aid in 2002.

It’s time to reboot the public consciousness and tell our story. Historically we’ve been too timid, too content to stay on the sidelines and wear a happy face while seething inside. We know that we’re exceptional practitioners of our craft, but the public needs to hear it. Consider the gravity of what we do, and frame it not only in the short term, but project decades and centuries in the future. Also think about the integrity and flow of information. Misinformation insinuates itself readily, and dissipates slowly. Participate in roundtables, host guests on your farm or lab. Challenge (diplomatically) your neighbor spouting off nonsense. But don’t hesitate to give candid answers if earnestly asked. Leverage your street cred and be a go-to resource!


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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