Imagine farming was a game. There are farming games and a farming version of Monopoly, but I'm envisioning my own version. You leave the starting gate this time every year, ready to plant, grow a crop, harvest, pay bills and move to the next year. Along the way there are obstacles in your path – potholes, if you will. Things like wet weather, pesky weeds, a hail storm, a blown tractor engine, you know the drill. Yet somehow you make it to the end and live to farm another year.
Hovering over my farming board, however, would be a giant cloud. It would contain things more elusive than the weather, but perhaps just as important in the long run. Each object in the cloud fights for the power to bring about change in agriculture and change in how you do business.
These things likely don't affect how you farm your way through this year, so they're often overlooked and forgotten. Why worry about issues that you can't control directly when you've got your hands full with day-to-day details of raising crops or livestock?
But there's actually a good reason why you should. That's because if you ignore the cloud, it may not affect whether you farm next year, but whether and how the next generation can farm twenty years from now, maybe sooner.
Who's in the cloud? The names of various groups, some of them you're familiar with, and some not. It's no secret that the Humane Society of the United States wants a meatless society where no one grows livestock. It's also no secret that PETA likes to stir the pot and cause trouble for livestock producers and their organizations with outlandish protests.
It's the ones you may not be as familiar with that we all should be paying attention to right now. They're working off the front page, behind the scenes, but they've figured out how to gain access to the boardrooms of companies in the food and restaurant industry. Every farmer is their target – not just livestock producers.
On the Website this week you will find stories about environmental activists seeking to bully companies into doing what they want. Convincing General Mills to offer non-GMO Cheerios just whetted their appetites, and they freely admit it. Currently they're after Starbucks, They want the huge coffee chain to only sell organic milk.
Big deal, you say. Starbucks sells coffee with some milk products in it. They're not a big player in the dairy market. What you fail to understand about the cloud is that the groups lurking there never retreat. And once they win a victory, they're empowered to go after an even bigger target.
Starbucks today, Walmart tomorrow.
The CEO of McDonald's, Don Thompson, says he constantly hears from both sides – farm groups and activist groups. He puts thought into decisions like whether they should only buy pork from suppliers who can guarantee producers selling to them no longer use gestation crates. He knows his decisions will impact the industry, and could put small farm businesses out of business.
Thompson says the people they listen to most are customers. Here's the rub. How does he know if it's an actual customer with honest concerns, or someone put up to posting something on Facebook by an activist group?
GMO Inside, an offshoot of Green America, takes great pride in letting people know they were responsible for 50,000 Facebook postings and 35,000 letters or calls from "concerned consumers" in the fight to get General Mills to switch to non-GMO Cheerios.
These groups and many others are in the 'cloud.' Be honest: did you ever hear of Green America or GMO Inside before reading it here? These groups don't just want GMO labeling on food – they want GMOs gone!
I'm not a pessimist. There's still time to win the game year after year, even as your children take the reins. But it will mean recognizing these groups are out there, and letting your voice be head along with theirs. If General Mills gets 50,000 Facebook posts telling them the horrors of GMOs, why shouldn't they get 100,000 posts from friends of agriculture debunking these claims?
Someone once said a journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step. Then defending American agriculture – one of the greatest success stories in the history of the world – can start with one post, one text, one letter or one phone call. Why not let it be yours?