I've been away from Mama Wisconsin way too much in the past five
weeks, and just getting my soles and soul re-greened by the
chlorophyll of prairie grasses. Bunch of things I've wanted to share
with you all. One of them was thoughts on John Block's spear-shaking
ululations in the 24 June 98 issue of /The Country Today/, in the
"In My Opinion" column.
First of all, by way of context, please recall that "IMO" was the
column where I, and two other State of WI employees, got
printblasted this past Feb. for having the temerity to serve on the
board of a nonprofit organization that advocates for small-scale
farms and rural communities, in our private time. At least that was
written by the CT editor, Jim Massey, an overall reasonable man with
whom I have consumed locally produced fermented small grain
beverages in a pub in I think it was Chippewa Falls. In other words,
he knew me precious little, but well enough to take a potshot at me.
That editorial had some soul and thought to it, and he offered me,
the other challenged people, and the organization upon whose board
we serve the opportunity to respond at length.
Block's column, on the other hand, made me want to recommend he
consume more fiber and fluids. And maybe fewer pesticide residues.
"Organic food zealots," "organic lovers," "Hey Willie,...you're all
screwed up," "Organo Weenies," "turn back the clock and reject
pasteurization of milk," the threat of salmonella and E. coli in
*organic* systems, "chop down the rain forests and plow up the hills"
(yes, it's been organic farmers deforesting the planet, Johnno; thank
you for sharing, you can pile into your pod and return to Planet
Avery now), yadda yadda yadda, blap blap blap.
I'm not sure what men like John Block gain from such polarized and
polarizing posturings. I know that he might be considered by some, no
doubt including himself, to be a Very Important Person, a Tigger of
Much Bounce. There's the tie, and he has One Of Those Haircuts, a
former secy of ag and now president of an organization that Tom
Wittman did some research on and concluded was of some importance.
His photo was taken from necktie-knot level--a photographic
convention (looking slightly up the nostrils) demonstrated by PR
mavens to carry Wafts of Authority (a waggish former PR colleague of
mine once said that the subliminal message is "booger you").
At first I concluded his thoughts deserved nothing other than a
laugh and inclusion in the same e-mail spam-humor cycles where the
Bill Gates jokes run wild and free.
Then I challenged myself to take it seriously for a nanosecond.
My first question was: who did he think he was talking to? For I
wouldn't call this column opinion, but rather constructing a Person
Of Straw, the better to burn it, and fan flames.
It just so happens that among those flames are organic farmers.
I said, "farmers."
This man ridiculed farmers in print. Called them names. Spoke for
them. Made fun of their methods and way of thinking. Minimized them.
Now, I realize that the history of disrespect for farmers is ancient.
Societies often marginalize and despise those who do essential work,
especially those who walk in Mysteries upon which everyone's lives
depend. Usurping those Mysteries also has a long tradition. (Which
accounts for the genesis of food distributors, but I digress.)
Another long tradition is that of playing people off against each
other, particularly in the white/Euro cultural tradition. Divide and
conquer. Good/evil. White/black. Men/women. Culture/nature.
Science/ignorance. That old Bipolar-Diss Order.
So I wondered, John, if you're against farmers, who are you for?
Oh, wait--he's the president of Food *Distributors* International.
OK, keep reminding me. Agriculture no longer means growing food. It
means making global-scale profits off of value-added activity from a
ballooning population, out of an ever-less-stable resource base and
using a centralized, vertically integrated production sector.
Apparently, once you're located within that powerplant, you get to
What struck me as particularly sad about this column was that what I
see around the Upper Midwest is farmers and rural communities
increasingly struggling to stay on an ag technology treadmill driven
by the profit-projections of financiers and M&A specialists, and
increasingly struggling to survive in the resulting foodshed physics.
I also see incredibly creative people-- entrepreneurs at diverse
economic levels--engaged in this $x-billion a year industry.
John Block's response? Not sure what to call it, but it's way out of
touch with many farmers, and not just in the organics industry. What
I see in his words is this:
Ridiculing farmers and playing them off against each other betrays
his contempt for them.
Minimizing the quarter-million comments to the USDA (which was,
please let's remember, part of the democratic response laid out in
the executive rulemaking process) demonstrates either his ignorance
of or indifference to how democratic governance happens or assumes
that messy old individual people, rallied to action, deserve to be
dismissed by the people hired to listen to them (like the secretary
Equating irradiation with pasteurization, claiming that genetically
engineered foods are the only future path possible, claiming that
it's organic farming that's reponsible for E. coli outbreaks and
deforestation--oh, golly, where does one start? This signals a void
of awareness that recalls George Bush in his Halcion days...or Dan
Quayle any time he opened his mouth, including to breathe.
And then the Appeal to Higher Powers. Not Willie Nelson, but that bit
where he rhetorically addressed Dan Glickman. Perhaps Glickman
subscribes to the CT, but, eesh, I doubt it. That rhetorical strategy
strikes me as peculiarly sucky-uppy. Kinda like the priestly caste in
ancient Mesopotamia telling the people that, no it really was the
gods' idea that they, the priests, control the flow of grain and the
granaries. No really, we're attuned with higher powers here! Hence we
invoke them as we tell you what to think!
I wasn't around to see the responses to this piece. My guess is that
anyone with sixteen functioning neurons on the topic of organic
farming wrote the column off--and quite possibly the CT as well. Not
that they'd be likely to be missed. Publications driven by
advertising revenue don't usually cotton to agricultural systems
based on management rather than consumption. Nor those readers. (As
we all witnessed in 1994 with the Rodale family's decision to axe
/The New Farm/--only people who Buy Stuff should be entitled to have
a publication, dontcha know. I keep dreaming that Rodale will start
up a Yuppie Chow zine, and use the revenues to subsidize a revived
TNF, but I digress yet again.) And editors of such publications, if
they have any awareness of community issues at all, as I damn well
know Jim Massey does, are free to let anyone in a tie make an ass of
himself. It just may sell papers.
But then I argued something similar about the NOP staff's approach to
the draft standards...the countersteering thing. It's motorcycling
season, so I'm inclined to think that way.
Yet in this case, I can't quite get away from one nugget of fact:
John Block ridicules farmers in print. Aggrandizes himself making fun
of farmers. Calls them names.
So, here's my final point. There are times in history when certain
opinions, people, and events are worthy of no response other than
satire, lampoonery, or other forms of humor.
John Block apparently gets off on ridiculing farmers. But I'd argue
that farmers deserve very different response than ridicule at this
point in history.
At the same time, I submit that we are ripe for someone who gets off
on ridiculing the John Blocks of the world.
I don't know who the Kate Clinton or Dick Gregory or Lenny Bruce or
Roseanne Barr of sustainable and organic ag could be, or whence will
arise its /Mad/ magazine or its Dr. Demento Show. It's not me, I
don't have the discipline. When I read the goofy, self-important,
hissyfit, honking blitblat in that column, at first I wanted to go
after our Weenie-obsessed Block with a Super Soaker, a can of Silly
String, some Utah Phillips songs, and maybe give him a noogie, to
see if the hair would muss.
Then haul his arrogant butt out on a ride thru the coulee with me
some night--if he were capable of keeping two wheels erect--for a
supper of crow among Wisconsin's organic farmers, processors, and
What the aitch. A woman can fantasize.
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
If you knew what life was worth, you
would look for yours on earth. --Bob Marley
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