It's hard to say why a NY farmer killed his 51 milking cows and then turned the gun on himself. Apparently he only killed the cows that needed to be milked twice a day. The only clue at this point seems to be the statement of a neighboring farmer who commented that it's "hard times to be a farmer."
The circumstances of this tragedy aside, the statement that it's a hard time to be a farmer is an important one for us to hear and take note of. The economics of farming are brutal, especially dairy farming. The demographics of farming are foreboding, with an average age of farmers in the U.S. of 57 in 2007. The chart to the left shows the long term pattern. The high cost of entry for new farmers wanting to get started with land and equipment means that younger people are choosing other careers. Add to this stress the consumer backlash against industrial farming practices and maybe it helps provide some needed context for rising anger among many in the farming community.
Last week I highlighted and reacted against the harsh tone of the recent American Farm Bureau (AFB) meeting in Seattle. In response to my post the Deputy Director of Public Relations for the AFB in Washington D.C. was so put out he tweeted, "There are some times on twitter when I just need to walk away. This is one of those times." He put out the call to AFB members to respond to the blog post and they did.
This response was particularly poignant:
It is not consumers that we are "declaring war" on. It is the lack of knowledge. It has been proven that public perception is shaped by those who speak out. And the farming community has long-since been one that is reluctant to tell our own story...and now that story is being told for us by those who would like to see our livelihood come to an end. So we need to start letting consumers, such as yourself, see us as we truly are...not the way others portray us.
Recognizing the daunting challenges currently facing farmers makes it easier to understand why it would feel like people are out to bring their livelihood to an end, even if that's not the case.
Recognizing these difficult circumstances makes it easier to understand why Mike Barnett from the Texas Farm Bureau had a very different reaction to the AFB address. Whereas I cringed at the aggressive tone, he rejoiced in it;
It was good to hear a major leader in agriculture stand up and say enough is enough. It was good to hear a call to action for agriculture to fight together against an insidious disease that threatens to consume our industry. It was refreshing to hear a cry to take "the fight to the enemies of modern agriculture."
"Things have got to change," Network's Howard Beale said. "But first you've got to get mad."
Is Stallman "the new mad prophet" of agriculture? Let's certainly hope so. I do know that he's mad as hell. I'm mad as hell. And I imagine you are, too.
Are we going to take this anymore?
While I can't relate to the anger, the tragedy on a dairy farm in New York today reminds me that it's "hard times to be a farmer" and even in passionate debate about food and food practices, farmers deserve our respect and concern. So go hug a farmer today.