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.