Recent essay about my trip to the national future farmers of america convention

A Report on the FFA 

by Eliza Greenman

Greenhorns, in partnership with Organic Consumers Association were in attendance last week at the national gathering of the FFA. The FFA National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, saw a sea of 60,000 students representing every nook and cranny of America (and its territories) gathered together for fellowship, belonging, education and scholarly competition. Between the ages of 13 and 18, many of these students are next-in-line to the family farm and occupy a strategically powerful position in the future of American Agriculture; they are kids with land. With a self-confidence rarely seen in teenagers and impeccable public speaking skills, these students in their blue corduroy jackets cut quite the impressive figure, particularly in a stadium context.

They are team-spirited, motivated and articulate, and most of them credit these qualities to the organization that brought them together, the FFA. The FFA is turning these next-in-line farmers, agriscientists, ag teachers and farm sympathizers into successful leaders, fierce entrepreneurs, and good Samaritans…for Big Ag.

 This polished youth constituency at the FFA sing the praises, almost exclusively, of Big Ag. How did this happen? Lets start with the obvious place, and let’s follow the money.

Based on the funding sources published in the 2012 National FFA Annual Report, corporate sponsorship represented 89% of total funding for the organization, or 18.6 million dollars (see page 17). This funding came from companies like:

  • Zoetis- World’s largest producer of medicine and vaccinations for pets and livestock under Pfizer

  • Cargill- Distributor of agricultural commodities such as the raising of livestock and production of feed

  • Monsanto- Leading producer of genetically engineered seed (GMO) and herbicides (Roundup)

  • Dow- 2nd largest chemical producer in the world

  • Syngenta– Biotechnology and genomic research, distribution of seeds

  • Elanco– Global animal pharmaceutical branch under Eli Lilly and Company

The corporate influence of the companies above and others were widely detected by all of the Greenhorns, as well as many of the parents and guardians in attendance at the convention. Throughout the expo, flashy, digital, draconian and utterly Orwellian interactive displays and mountains of corporate schwag beckoned students to answer the question: “Who will feed the world when it reaches 9 billion people by 2050?”

The “feed the world” sloganeering has been carefully crafted by “Big Ag” to make organic agriculture seem inadequate or even dangerous to the health of the world. The energy from the main stage resembled an arena playing Jock Jams more than an address by a CEO. Full of college football jeering, promises for thousands of future scholarships, and cheering for money (“Scream if you think money is neat-o”), students were all riled up. Tyson Foods, Elanco and Monsanto executives coached the students, with polished evangelical speeches, about the “grave risk” we face if we can’t use “technologies we have (including drought resistant seeds) to feed the world.”  Afterwards, FFA students approached the Greenhorns booth to [politely] ask us why biotechnology isn’t currently accepted by our organization. We were accused of not knowing the facts and dabbling in unethical, fear-mongering tactics (in league with Chipotle) giving consumers false and condemning information. Sweet, clean, well-meaning students explained to us why organic agriculture just isn’t realistically able to feed the world. It’s not innovative and technologically advanced enough, they said.

 Our retort: Without a return to restorative organic agriculture, our legacy won’t have a world to feed. But that’s almost besides the point. The goal is not for ‘we biotech’ to feed the world, but for the world to feed itself with foods appropriate to the culture and landscape – empowerment of communities with food sovereignty and seed sovereignty. The goal is to grow food in a way that respects the land and soil while building a biodiverse and environmentally resilient landscape that can provide us a well balanced diet, not just corn and its myriad of products. “Who will Feed the world in 2050” is a marketing tactic for big businesses that realize the destruction they are causing now, to our diets and our soil health, but don’t want to lose any market share. They don’t want to talk about feeding the world today.

To help transform the public conversation from questioning our diets and soil health towards being concerned with the future of feeding two-billion more people, companies like Monsanto are smartly investing their money to indoctrinate the FFA’s 610,000+ student member base, the next generation of agricultural leaders, their own young farmer lobby. For example, funding is being poured into extensive public speaking training for these students so their voices will stand out, even in the sensory-overloaded social-media generation. Just watch the extemporaneous public speaking finals from this year for proof of success, their stage presence is impressive to say the least.

It’s all about diversion. The keynote address from the CEO of Tyson Foods was delivered after first telling the young audience it was okay not to pay attention: don’t put your phones away, was the first thing Donnie Smith said, as he took a ‘selfie’ on stage. Instead, he ordered the young audience: “GET YOUR PHONES OUT! Let me see your phones, Louisville! Let me see them all! Light it up!” His main point, and the point of the phone gimmick was to ask the crowd to use social media to “take back” the “story of agriculture:” “These people are hijacking your story and you need to take it back!” Within hours of delivering this message with the hashtag of #myagstory, Donnie Smith’s message trended #1 on Twitter.

But, for those of us who were listening instead of tweeting, we want to know: take back the story of agriculture from whom?? Tyson Foods and others indict the organic industry, corporations like Chipotle, “basement dwelling loser bloggers,” presumably even our very own young farmers movement, have stolen the story of agriculture and distorted it with fear-mongering. These students are taught that the organic movement has co-opted the “story of agriculture” because we want to vilify and condemn America’s farmers. How unreasonable to question the farming practices of the most patriotic and hardworking of Americans. Watch these Amazing videos and see for yourself, learn the facts and know the issues, help us defend our work, help us insist on the truth.

Videos to watch from the 2014 National FFA Convention:

Tyson CEO Donnie Smith Delivers Keynote to 2014 FFA Conference

Monsanto President Brett Begemann speaks to 2014 FFA Conference

FFA introduction for Brett Begemann, Monsanto President

Extemporaneous Public Speaking Finals

 So why is Big Ag investing like this in the youth? These corporations are working towards rewriting America’s rural identity into one where hard work ethic, ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit and family values are based, not on real relationships with the soil, land and local communities, but on the use of high-cost and high-input biotechnological innovation. Students at FFA have bought into the fairytale of Big Ag: that the best way to farm is with bigger-better-newer equipment, leasing or buying ever-larger parcels, and cultivating with high-tech seed and synthetic chemicals to ensure high yields. As one student said: “Why should I farm 600 acres organically when I can farm 6000 acres with GM products? It just makes more business sense and the world’s gotta eat.”

These bright and charming kids are getting hooked on a narrative that undermines their autonomy as business people, and gives them a shortsighted picture of farmland and soil stewardship. It is no secret that chemical inputs for monoculture crops cause serious, long-term soil degradation. It is no secret that farmers, especially those under contract with Tyson Foods and Tyson’s subsidiaries, have little control over the fates of their small businesses, where they get big or are squeezed out with crushing debt. (Read: The Meat Racket).

Given the current political and economic landscape, it would appear to make a lot of sense for young entrepreneurial-minded rural farmers to grow crops like corn because the market is demanding it (ethanol, livestock feed and export) and tax payers are subsidizing it. As farmers and advocates of diversified and specialty crops, a monoculture largely supported by American tax dollars seems to have a precarious future, yet these FFA students don’t see it that way. One feisty young man swore on his family’s farm that if subsidies were taken away, his family’s corn and soybean business would still prosper like it has been, even with the recent purchase of a $380,000 harvester. This may or may not be the case for this young man, but according to David Griswold of the CATO institute in a 2007 debate with the Farm Bureau: “Subsidized farmers are selling out their future competitiveness in the market for the sake of federal handouts.” From 1980 to 2005, cash receipts for subsidy supported crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar beets, etc rose 14 percent while cash receipts for non-supported crops like fruits, vegetables, and nuts, soared by 186 percent.

We have reached a moment where the mainstream American public has begun to question the contents, supply chain, ethics and health of their food supply, and wants it labelled. Big Ag is getting worried. Last fall the “Farmers and Ranchers Alliance” paid for and distributed a ‘documentary film about young farmers in America,’ called Farmland. This film was distributed to Farm Bureaus across America in order to hit their target audience of sons and daughters born into conventional agricultural families who feel squeezed and misunderstood by mass media depictions. Outside of the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s reach, this film was dismissed as an elaborate high-cost puff-piece (“more like a feature-length advertisement than like a documentary”). Many students we talked with asked if we had seen this film, which they felt was a fair portrayal of their lifestyle.

Through millions of dollars in donations, corporations have created a heroic strawman, an all-American, football loving narrative painting themselves as saviors of global hunger and harbingers of sustainable agriculture. This heroism gets piped into rural schools right alongside the pledge of allegiance, beckoning student farmers to join them in their effort to intensify production in order to meet growing food demands. The rewards are big and the conventional way of farming is seen as a sure thing for right now.

The national FFA conference was best summed up by Greenhorns teammate Katie Murray: “These corporations and FFA mindsets are in-put, output driven. These students aren’t being taught to think of the long-term effects. They are a rising generation of agricultural thinkers and actors who aren’t considering the whole system.” Feeding the growing population, 9 billion by 2050, is just a piece of the whole-system puzzle, including our diets and soil health today, in 2014. The FFA is built on camaraderie and relationship building, yet it seems to fall short when considering the ecological relationships needed to sustain this earth for centuries to come. This is a disservice to the members of the Future Farmers of America, who deserve to learn and be exposed to more than what the current educational constraints dictate.

Can we feed 9 billion using organic techniques? This UN report says its the only way forward. In order to further this train of thought and practice, we’re going to have to invest in relationships with the incoming generation. The FFA students are smart, friendly, respectful, hard-working, down to earth, and completely insulated by the FFA curriculum. It’s our job to help them to make more connections with a more diverse nature and expose them to the way of life we believe in. Reach out to your local FFA chapter and see what you can do to help. Volunteer, offer guided tours, be a guest speaker and get to know these students clad in blue corduroy jackets. They are good kids, and we’ll need them on the team.

In the words of William C. Gehrke, who as farmer-teacher-advocate in 1936 wrote a letter published in The Kansas Union Farmer about “a better way to get farmers to realize social problems“: If the common people would awaken, especially your farmers, shake off the shackles of ignorance and quit following blindly, you would become master of your own destinies. Let’s learn from this history and stop teaching ignorance.

(This essay has been taken out of the most recent Greenhorns Eblast, which can be found HERE)

This article was also helped and enhanced by the editing talents of Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, Ann Marie Rubin and Anna Isserow. . 

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How in the heck can apples and black walnuts grow together? A thought

Last year I traveled to Central Asia to see and (briefly) study the native-wild apple forests  of Kyrgyzstan (article found HERE). Once there, I learned that the forest composition was primarily walnut-apple. This was a bit of a surprise for me to see, because everything I had learned in forestry school told me that walnuts produce a chemical called juglone, which creates a hostile environment for plants that come within contact of walnut roots (as in, it messes with their respiration). Seeing these apples growing happily and harmoniously next to these walnuts was a bit of a mind-blowing experience for me because a thriving apple-walnut ecosystem would have never occurred to me based what I had been told in school.

The walnuts in Kyrgyzstan are known as Carpathian walnuts, or English/Persian walnuts (Juglans regia). They are known to have a lesser amount of juglone than our native black walnut, so I just assumed this was how apples were able to grow in the company of walnuts in these forests. Either that, or the ancient apple genetics had co-evolved to tolerate juglone. Whatever the mechanism was that allowed for these trees to grow together, the results were stunning to me.

The apples in this forest were no-maintenance-flawless and I thought this might be due to a combination of three things: 1.)Excellent genetics (which had co-evolved for over millions of years to resist certain pests and diseases). 2.) The fact that I could smell the juglone chemical being released from the leafy walnut canopy (which acted as a pest deterrent). 3.) The presence of livestock in these forests, which helped keep pest pressure down through disrupting life cycles. After witnessing this, I thought: I have got to figure out how to mimic this apple-walnut ecosystem in the United States.

I decided to start down a path of finding walnut family members that produced a lesser amount of juglone than our black walnut, like hickories and pecans, which wouldn’t kill my apple trees but would still provide the benefits of deterring insects. Though I am still interested in further experimenting with this concept, I’m writing this blog to announce that I’ve discovered another possible pathway… SOIL BACTERIA.

This article has me really excited (warning: it is uber-nerdy): http://amo.colorado.edu/schmidt1988.pdf

Basically, it identifies a juglone-metabolizing soil bacteria which has been known to cancel out the allelopathic properties underneath black walnuts! This would explain some people’s claims that all sorts of plants are able to grow under their black walnuts while others have a barren landscape underneath. This could also explain the relationships in Kyrgyzstan…the native soil could be full of this bacteria and many others like it! All of a sudden, mimicking a wild walnut-apple ecosystem in the US might be made possible by identifying and then inoculating juglone-metabolizing soil bacteria into the orchard(!).

I need to do more research on this, but it would be fund to run a few experiments on identifying landscapes which can grow apples underneath/within the root zone of walnuts and taking a few scoops of soil, in which you then start a new black walnut seedling and transplant out near to an apple.  It’s kind of like fruit exploring, only soil bacteria-meets- fruit exploring.