Show Senator Pat Roberts that small farmers aren’t little GQ-reading dilettantes

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack went before the Senate Agriculture Committee today to be confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture. Brownfield has a short recap of the run-of-the-mill comments, the Senate Ag Committee page has a webcast archived, but go straight to Chris Clayton at the DTN Ag Policy Blog for the juicy bits. After Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said he thought organic agriculture deserved more support, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) offered this imaginatively gift-wrapped cowpie for a definition of “small family farmer”:

“That small family farmer is about 5’2″…and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly — he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab — and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.”

Wow, Kansas’s sizable number of certified organic growers must be really happy with their elected representative right now. I wonder who he can be talking about? The small farmers we know — and between us all, we’ve met quite a few — don’t match that description at all. Many of them are third-generation or more, young as well as old, and of course, tall as well as short. They don’t have time to read The Stockman Grass Farmer, let alone GQ. They’re too busy scratching out a lean living from soil that they nurture as carefully as they do their own children.

It sounded to us like maybe Senator Roberts just hadn’t encountered many small family farmers in all the years he’s served on Congress’s ag committees. So we’ve uploaded some photos of the ones we know to Flickr under the tag roberts_meet_small_farmers, and created the slideshow above to stream all the Flickr photos with that tag here. We’d love for you to give the senator a little help by introducing him to small farmers from your region via Flickr, too. Because do any of these folks look like slackers to you?

(Jan. 15 update: You can watch the slideshow big on Flickr here: turn on Show Info in the upper right to learn who these farmers are, and who took the photos. Big thanks to Tana Butler from I (Heart) Small Farms for the dozens of gorgeous portraits she just tagged!)

Roberts followed up his gem of a description with another, more laudatory one of the “production agriculture farmer”:

“That person is in Iowa. He’s got 2,000 acres and he farms and he farms with his dad. Two brothers are gone because they can’t really sustain that on the farm. His counterpart in Kansas, in my part of the country, has 10,000 acres. And his tractor costs about $350,000. It’s amazing, in terms of the costs. But these folks are the folks who produce the food and fiber for America and a troubled and hungry world.”

He forgot to say that this farmer is also 6’2″.

We don’t dispute that production farmers have a role to play in agriculture, and certainly will for years to come. But small farmer = GQ-reading porch-rocker?

Already, small farmers growing so-called “specialty” crops like fruits and vegetables — who struggle to do the right thing by the land, their animals, and their communities — face much higher labor and input costs, an inhospitable distribution network, and many other challenges. They don’t need condescension and ridicule from their elected representatives on top of it.

If you agree, upload your photos to Flickr, and tag them roberts_meet_small_farmers. Your photos will join the slideshow above.

15 Responsesto “Show Senator Pat Roberts that small farmers aren’t little GQ-reading dilettantes”

  1. Jackie says:

    From a young, 5′ 7″ female, 4th generation family farmer of 255 acres, with expensive tractors and equipment and both conventional and organic land that feed lots of people; with cold, hungry animals and manure to shovel, this is absolutely outrageous.  Insulting.  Ignorant.  Just goes to show that there’s plenty of manure to shovel in Washington, too.   Let’s get to work.

  2. Ed Bruske says:

    So what’s the surprise? Our federal government has been working hard for decades with a handful of international corporations to put small farmers out of business. Why should they stop now–unless the public rises up and has something to say about it.

  3. I appreciated the laugh early this morning, but man, does Pat Roberts exemplify how out-of-touch most of the old guard in Washington is.  As a six-foot, 29-yr.-old gay former farmer myself, I like to say that in fact, yes, I do enjoy thumbing through the occassional GQ.  I didn’t however tend to 40 acres – try nearly two acres spread amidst low-income neighborhoods in downtown Rochester, NY.  I loved gettin’ down and dirty in my Carhart duckpants, Teva sandlas and muscle tees as I tended my over 40 veggie crops and 60+ varieties of tomatoes.  Boy I cleaned up nice on the weekends though, and that GQ advice served me well at local watering holes in helping me find my bread-winning “wife.” Strangely, I’m still single.

  4. risa b says:

    Roberts — the epitome of what’s wrong with American agriculture, and what’s wrong with all too many American <i>men</i>. Sheesh! Politics as earmarks for industrial patriarchy. I do hope Vilsack, at least, gets a grip …

  5. Rebecca says:

    Well, you finally convinced me to create a Flickr account.  Thought I’d add a few photos so Pat could see that, at least in South Dakota, not all small farmers are sittin’ on their porch reading GQ.  I hadn’t thought things were so posh in Kansas, but then I’ve been too busy in my gardens to drive down there and check it out!  ;-)

  6. Janet says:

    I, a Kansan whose grand-, great-grand- and great-great-grandparents were Kansas farmers, called Roberts’ office to express my displeasure about it and spoke to his ag aide. The aide assured me that Roberts was merely trying to express that the USDA needs to be concerned about the whole range of farmers out there. Why am I skeptical?

  7. Hmm… Let’s see about Roberts assumptions… First we’ll start with what he got wrong:
    I’m a small farmer and I am:
    1) 5’8″
    2) Don’t do stocks, except the kind that graze out there on my other asset.
    3) Don’t read GQ, never have.
    4) Don’t have a porch.
    5) Don’t have a glider.
    6) My wife, and sons & daughter, work on the farm with me.
    7) I’ve never flown an airplane, except in my dreams.
    8) I own and farm about 1,000 acres, not 40 acres.
    If my wife were answering, since she farms too, she would add to the list:
    9) She is female. If he can’t tell a man from a woman then Roberts has even more issues than we guessed.
    On the other hand, he did get something right:
    1) We do have a pond, actually several for watering the livestock.
    2) We do grow organic apples but we feed them to our pigs as one more way of producing more of our own feed stuffs from our own farm. If they have a little extra protein in them, I assume he means a worm, then so much the better – but he really should read up and realize that worms, really apple maggots, are a great source of lipids rather than proteins.
    So, he scored two correct out of 11. That’s a whopping 18% correct or a F- in anybody’s book. Pat Roberts needs to go back to school and get out of the Senate. Or perhaps that is the problem, he’s a product of our public education system and failed miserably so they sent him to Washington since he wasn’t fit to farm or do any other real work.

  8. Amy S says:

    I am just outraged by these comments.  I come from a long line of farmers and am planning on starting my own organic farm in a few years.  I am proud of my heritage and the work that all small-scale organic farmers do, which is way more beneficial to our land and people than large scale industrial farming.

    Just FYI, I am 5′ 7″ and my husband, who will be farming with me, is 6′ 7″.  I just sent an email to Sen. Roberts.  Here’s what I said:

    The remarks you made re: small organic farmers at yesterday’s Vilsack hearing are inexcusable and show just how ignorant you are.  Although I am thankfully not a constituent of yours, I felt it necessary to express my disgust with your remarks.  I hope many others are sending you similar messages, especially those smaller scale farmers who work diligently to grow quality organic produce for their local communities without the use of pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, and GMOs.  I suspect that those types of farmers are a thorn in your side because they shun the industries that support you the most, which caused you to make those comments.  Nothing is more noble than growing food in harmony with nature and with respect for people and the land.
    A full apology is in order and I hope you have the courage and intelligence to offer it.
    Ms. Amy S., a proud American and descendant of hard-working small scale farmers.

  9. Chris says:

    A small suggestion.  As people rightfully raise hell about this ignorant and insulting statement (that clearly took plenty of thought and some effort to write) don’t key too much on the Gentleman’s Quarterly part of it.  That’s not the important part and though it sounds nice in a retort, it distracts from the really insidious notion that small farmers don’t work.

  10. Ann says:

    OK, here is a little bit about our small farm. Right now I’d like to find that little 5’2″ dude, take his GQ away from him and put him to work. I am currenly working our small farm myself, a 5’6″ 53 year old women. The high today was about 12 degrees, a bit warmer than the -4 when I got up this morning. Not fun doing chores in this weather by myself but hubby is away with the Air Force, so is the youngest son. The help I have on the farm every day are the border collies and a LGD. For those with their noses in GQ, a LGD is a livestock guard dog, they keep the coyotes etc from my sheep. I’m proud to be able to work the farm myself, it’s not the first time and Lord knows probably not the last. Hubby has been in more countries than I can count, even with my shoes off, his last overeseas trip was to Afghanistan. Both sons have been in Iraq, one that returned with a purple heart. So Senator Roberts, look again at that small farm, the only thing you got right about us was the small pond. We are everyday Americans that love and support our county. By the way, if all your small farmer does is read GQ instead of taking care of those apples the extra protein is probably worms!

  11. SarahB says:

    Wow.  Thanks to Janet from Kansas for calling the Senator’s office.  For any other Kansas residents seeking to express their displeasure with Senator Roberts’ office, the number to his office in DC is (202) 224-4774.  The offices are closed Monday and Tuesday for the Inauguration–let’s leave their voice mail box full upon their return!

  12. Ginger says:

    I am a 6th generation farmer to be, as soon as I can get back to my family’s 80 acre farm.  Thanks for the heads up.  I posted several photos of my favorite farmers – my dad, my brother, my aunt and uncle, hard at work.

  13. Food Woolf says:

    Beautiful writing and important story. Thank you for your insights in what is an increasingly vital issue facing the food world as we know it.

  14. Monkeyhawk says:

    Damn. I’m getting old. I remember when Pat Roberts imagined himself a champion of the family farm. The REAL “gentlemen farmers” are those who sit in McMansions in Dallas and condos overlooking Biscayne Bay while endorsing their share of Pat Roberts’ BigAg subsidy checks. Maybe it’s just the evolution of the economy. I dunno. Roberts’ vaunted (and tall and burly — WTF?!) 10,000 acre farmers are producing commodities. The local family (including organic farmers) produce real food! Real food real people eat! What a concept. I’m a native of a small Kansas town. I get raw milk from a family farmer who milks a couple dozen cows a day. I don’t care if next Sunday’s leg o’ lamb had a name last week. From a screenplay I should be writing: INT. CHURCH BASEMENT — NIGHT A particularly stunningly handsome man walks up to the podium. Fellow recovering ADDICTS in the audience sip coffee and smoke cigarettes. MONKEYHAWK — I’m Monkeyhawk and I am addicted to heirloom tomatoes. ADDICTS (in unison) Hi, Monkeyhawk!” “Delilah” announces — “I grow heirloom tomatoes.” I will marry you. Tonight. If you’re already married I’ll stalk you. I’ll camp out on your porch. You’re simply not dealing with a rational person when it comes to heirloom tomatoes. I will do anything — anything! for heirloom tomatoes. Need someone bumped off? I’m your guy and should never have to worry about BLTs for the foreseeable future. That’s my deal. I want the heirloom tomatoes my poor deluded grandfather thought were poisonous. I’ll submit to eating them off the vine with my hands tied behind me. If you want to be cruel and really leverage your power over me, I’ll crawl in your heirloom tomato patch naked, by hands tied behind me, and I’ll sing ABBA songs. I am powerless over heritage tomatoes. Don’t get me started…. Someone responded with — “The problem with heirloom tomatoes is you get like two tomatoes per vine.” No. The “problem” with heirloom tomatoes is they’re addictive. “Mennonite Heroin,” I tell ya! And those “Girls of the Hood” (or bonnet, or scarf, or whatever they call those thin things on their heads) actually CANNED some of last summer’s tomatoes and they’ll sell you a quart or two… that turns into pasta sauce and salsa and… I’m tellin’ ya. If word gets out, Kansas Mennonites will put Afghanistan opium out of business and we’ll be up to our armpits with heritage tomato junkies. Not a pretty sight…

  15. Expat Chef says:

    I did not vote for this guy. Just for the record. I write him often and bitch. I will send him another love note over this comment. Sigh. That, and the House just passed no-rBGH label law, it’s off to the Senate.

    Frickin’ red state.