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In the food wars, opposing sides take their message across the aisles

Sandhya Dirks

Debate surrounding what we eat and how it’s made is nothing new, but in this year of outcry over pink slime, criticism regarding gestation crates and questions about the value of organic food, the various sides are reaching out in new ways and new places. Even when the opposing camps actually speak with each other, though, middle ground is still proving hard to find.

Recently, many farmers and livestock producers have found themselves battling environmental and animal welfare groups.  But not all farmers find themselves on the other side, as Paul Willis, founder of the Niman Ranch Pork Company, demonstrated earlier this year.

On a steamy late summer day Willis gave a special tour of his Thornton, Iowa, hog farm. While hogs milled around in an open pen—their large wet noses rooting for food – Willis showed Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, how he does things.

Pacelle is on the frontlines of the great crate debate — what hog producers call CAFO’s -- containment engineered for animal safety-- and the Humane Society calls confinement crates on factory farms. As part of a new tactic, Pacelle is taking his message directly to farm country.

On the tour, Willis explained that he doesn’t use gestation crates.

“I went in one of those buildings once, an early one,” Willis said. “And I thought if this is the way to raise pigs, I’m not doing it.”

By releasing videos depicting stomach-turning scenes from confinement operations, Pacelle and the Humane Society have been successful in getting fast food restaurants like McDonalds and food providers like Sysco to promise not to carry pork produced in confinement farms. Now, Pacelle is working to bring more farmers on board.

“With all of these retailers saying that they don’t want any part of that in the future, it’s inevitable,” Pacelle said. “It’s now just a question of ‘Are we going to have an orderly transition or are we going to continue have a fight about it?’”

Hugh Whaley, the head of the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), says his organization believes that there are many different ways to farm, and none should be excluded from the conversation.

“We will be more than happy to sit down and discuss food, food production with any individual that recognizes the need and the right for all forms of production agriculture to exist,” Whaley said.

Whaley says they will only talk with groups that promise to keep all farming practices on the table. It’s is a nice way of saying the food wars are still very much on. USFRA is a coalition of farmers and ag groups who came together two years ago to advocate for farm interests.

“By and large, we were not being asked to enter and engage in the conversation about food, Whaley said. “So we decided to take matters into our own hands and collectively come together.”

Whaley’s says food producers have been misrepresented and the food industry is partially to blame – for too long the knee-jerk reaction of those in agriculture and agro-business was to close ranks. Whaley says they can’t continue to keep silent, journalist Michael Pollan agrees.

“What’s happened in the food industry is that the way food was produced has disappeared for about forty years from public view,” Pollan said. “Only people who grew the food knew how it was grown. And now there’s a great deal of interest. So these people feel they have the hot breath of the eater looking over their shoulder and that’s making them really uncomfortable.”

Pollan is the one of the voices that helped fuel that hot breath, first as a reporter for the New York Times and now as the author of books such as “The Omnivores Dilemma.”  He says it only makes sense – conventional food is a multibillion dollar industry and they’ve taken a hit from bad publicity.

“Basically, they feel that shutting up has not served them well and that letting people like me and these humane activists tell their stories is worse than letting – them giving interviews and telling their own stories,” Pollan said.

That’s why USFRA is hosting events they call “food dialogues” not in the heartland, but on the coasts—like Los Angeles, and most recently New York. And USFRA is using other techniques, like training farmers to talk with the media.

One of those farmers is Stacey Pellet. USFRA sent Pellet to San Francisco to learn how to talk to the media, and how to talk to people who think of big farms as a bad thing.

“I’m well educated in talking with people, but what they really taught me was how to understand where they are coming from, and the position – or the viewpoint that they have – and to find something that is relatable to where I am coming from so that we can meet on common ground,” Pellet said. “Because really, I don’t think that in most cases were on such opposite sides of the fence.”

As Pellet drove around her family’s farm, she explained that her biggest tool is to talk from personal experience, as a mother and a farmer. She says that the people who criticize farmers often don’t understand what it means to make food.

“People sometimes think of it as a corporate environment, or if you get large you are no longer a family farm,” Pellet said. “But we are a family farm whether we farm 10 acres or 10,000 acres.”

Pellet says the idea of the small family farm is a bit of a nostalgic notion, and that with less people growing food for more people, farmers are just changing with the times.

“Now there’s been such a shift to the urban areas, and away from the production agriculture, less than two percent of the people are farming, but there’s a huge percentage of people involved in agriculture.” But she says it’s a good thing that people care about where there food comes from, “we always say if you eat you’re involved in agriculture, that’s our perspective.”

Back at Paul Willis’ farm, he says he agrees that everyone should be involved in the business of food. And he says things have gotten bigger, but he says that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do things. Willis holds out hope for change to what he believes is a more sustainable model, “Actually the average age of our farmers is 47. The average of age of farmers in general is 57 so of course it’s a concern. But we’re doing something, we are trying encourage people to raise livestock in this manner, just the age of our farmers shows the trend is with us.”

Still Willis says there is no denying agro business has changed the way most farmers think about farming.   

“A lot of these skills are passed from one generation to the next,” Willis said. “I’ve actually had agriculture classes of farm kids, we had a group of about 20, and none of these kids all grown up on a farm had ever seen a pig outdoors before. So that’s a concern.”

As both sides of the food debate aim their message at the other side, how food is made in the future will depend on the next generation of farmers and the next generation of eaters.