People don’t choose to spend their lives in factories.

This makes me sad. From the exchange of letters between CalPoly and Harris Ranch, Harris Ranch closes its letter with this:

Dr. Baker we still harbor significant concerns about the direction of the College of Agriculture at Cal Poly. And while we appreciate the last minute changes to the upcoming Pollan event, we believe this matter to be indicative of the disconnect that in our opinion currently exists between College of Agriculture at Cal Poly and the agriculture community. We challenge you to convince us otherwise. Finally, we hope you – and especially Dean Wehner – understand this Pollan issue is bigger than the executives at Harris ranch… it’s bigger than Cal Poly alumni involved in the animal production industry. This whole mess is having a profound impact not just on Cal Poly, but rather, on Ag schools across this great nation. We believe this is a wakeup call to those in academia.  [my emphasis]

I went to CalPoly SLO. Took ag classes while I was there. Perhaps it has changed in the years since, but I tell you what. There is no disconnect between CalPoly academia and the agriculture community. There were two types of people in my classes, the sons of growers who were going back to the farm to become foremen and the sons of pickers. (No, not many daughters.) We went on multi-day field trips to my classmates’ farms. One of my classmates had never eaten store-bought meat until he got to college. (He thought it tasted awful.) Another one of my classmates was designing an industrial-sized carrot peeler for his dad’s farm, to better salvage and market carrots. Four years later I saw my first bag of “baby carrots” in a store. My classmates wore Wranglers with no ironic calculation. I once walked behind a pair of them who were strolling and talking; one was casually lassoing and releasing the other’s foot, in stride and in pace. The ag colleges at CalPoly are teaching ag kids.

The distance between CalPoly ag academia and the larger ag community is one personal phone call. That’s on the peer-to-peer professional level that the CalPoly dean describes in his letter. But it is also on the parent-child level. The ag community is as close to CalPoly ag academia as they are to their children; reports on lectures and teachings come out of classrooms and local knowledge about what is happening in the Valleys flow back in.

Which is why that last paragraph made me sad. He is right about the disconnect, but that gap isn’t between ag academia and the ag community. The disconnect he’s feeling is of conventional agriculture community losing their children. The next generation doesn’t want to farm like them anymore. I’ve eavesdropped on several conversations of growers and other ag professionals wondering who will replace them. They say that their kids laugh at the idea.

I can’t help but feel for the old generation. They achieved a lot! They made agriculture SO EFFICIENT. They lived better through chemistry. They seized the promise of the Green Revolution. They turned production into a science. They ran on the crappy  efficiency/land consolidation/overproduction treadmill, and if they’re still standing, they were the best and hardest working. They built the system they live in everyday, understanding its reasons and being reassured by its familiarity. The good people, the hardworking people like them, live around them and accept the life. Why wouldn’t their children want it? Why would their children want to go to a talk by the man who is undermining the ag life they all know?

This poor guy. He probably does want CalPoly to go back to Before All This Sustainability Crap. But the urgency for him and his friends isn’t whether their beloved college hosts a lecturer. That is a symptom of the problem, which is that the kids would listen to Pollan in the first place. He’s right. It is infecting ag colleges everywhere. The real cause of the emotion and urgency is that their kids are leaving their way of life, which coincides with going to college. Even if their kids do (against very hard start-up barriers) find a way to farm, they may well farm like dirty hippies, which is Not The Same. I want the end of big ag in the Valleys as much as anyone does. But I still see why that ending is painful for the people who thought they were doing right when spent their lives turning farms into factories.

My personal take on the CalPoly/Harris Ranch/Pollan dust-up?  I think everyone has behaved well.  I think it is perfectly reasonable for Harris Ranch to say that they don’t want to give half-a-million dollars to a school that hosts lectures saying that what Harris Ranch does is wrong.  I have no problem with the Pollan lecture being expanded to host a panel afterwards.  CalPoly didn’t disinvite Pollan and doesn’t seem to be punishing out Prof. Rutherford.  Seems to me that all sides are standing on legitimate ground.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “People don’t choose to spend their lives in factories.

  1. Just letting you know that the first link in the article is broken. It goes to http:///. I’m pretty sure that there should be a URL there.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    Got it. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Cannon

    Interesting blog here, glad I found it. As the 6th generation of my family to be involved in California agriculture, I am one of the young ones who are back on the farm (while 37 doesn’t feel too young anymore). We are what you probably feel is “big ag” and I am sorry you think that we shouldn’t be here. You get it right with recognizing that ag has become more efficient over the years and has achieved a lot. The regulatory environment of California has played a big part in this, as we have had to increase efficiencies to mitigate the rising cost of production (mainly from regulatory pressure). We have created an ample supply of food from a relatively small amount of land and perhaps this has been a big mistake. We are feeding way more than just Californians and people are now accustomed to walking in to stores and having a diversity of fresh produce all year long (better shipping and globalization also have added to this). When people know they have a reliable and plentiful supply of food, it becomes much easier to think about how to change systems. Advocating for organic food, animal rights and other such causes is much easier on a full stomach. I am not saying that some wouldn’t be doing this, but the traction in the urban areas would not be so great if there was a shortage of food.
    But the bottom line is that there is a lot of food and there is now a growing sentiment that it shouldn’t be produced the way it is. The lack of appreciation is what is frustrating to “big ag” farmers and I can see why some of children of these families don’t want to be involved in it. The pride for the accomplishments is taken away because instead of being grateful, people like Pollan attack the hand that has fed them.
    Can it be done better? Perhaps it can in some areas, but those of us in California ag are doing it the right way. We are not allowed to use pesticides that much of the other ag states (and other countries) are still using. We pay a high minimum wage, have workers comp, health insurance, retirement plans and other worker benefits not offered in other places. We are subject to many air and water quality standards. The list goes on and on. Do we want to get our food from other countries that don’t have any of these safeguards or standards? If not with “big ag”, then where do we get our food.
    Organic production wasn’t even 1% of the cropland in 2005. Farmers are not stupid and would switch to organic if the market for the product made it profitable. There are still a lot of consumers who just want access to inexpensive food. This comment is digressing too much, but I wanted to get some thoughts out there. Thanks again for the interesting blog, I will be checking in regularly.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    Cannon, thanks for your comment. I don’t have quite the same take on California ag, but I thought your comment was thoughtful and interesting. I’m very glad you’re stopping by. Your own blog is shaping up, and I liked your Twitter feed. I’ll be reading what you have to say as well.