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Criticism comes with territory, but this critic crossed the line

I guess it comes with the territory.

The privilege of adding a byline to a story or a commentary comes with a responsibility and vulnerability that means I have to accept criticism that results from publication of my opinions or even statements of fact that readers find disagreeable.

I accept that. And I typically listen to comments and complaints politely, knowing that whoever is writing or calling has just as much right to his or her opinion as I have to mine. But I appreciate a modicum of courtesy from folks who disagree with me.

That was hardly the case with the call I had from a reader who objected to the commentary I wrote criticizing the film "Food, Inc." This caller accused me of being anti-small farm, owned by corporate America, and incapable of performing my job competently.

He even suggested that if he gave me 100 acres of land to farm I would go broke within three years. He’s probably right about that. While trying to learn to write in college and graduate school I had very little exposure to agronomy or horticulture classes.

But his other assertions have no basis in fact. I believe small farms play an important role in producing healthy food and I can’t recall ever writing anything to the contrary. I do contend, however, that the large, mostly family-owned farms I visit are vital to producing the quantities of food and fiber necessary to feed this country and others.

I’ve written many times that small operations — organic or conventional farms — provide excellent opportunities for folks with limited acreage to make money from their land. And they provide a local source of food for those of us who want farm-fresh produce or meat. I look for those opportunities myself, especially when tomatoes and peaches are in season.

The claim that I’m “owned” by corporate America I find offensive. I believe agriculture needs the goods and services that large companies provide. I need them myself, and whether he admits it or not, so does my critic. If he uses fuel for his vehicles, electricity for his home, a bank, or any communication system, he relies, to some extent, on large companies. Unless his farm is completely self-sustaining, he depends, to some extent on corporations.

Do big companies always make good decisions? Do they always consider the long-term ramifications of actions? Do they always act in the best interest of consumers? Of course not. Profit is their main goal and if they can’t make a profit they can’t manufacture products that even the most sustainable of us need from time to time. They need reasonable regulations. That’s a job for government, consumer watchdog organizations, and, occasionally, stockholders and boards of directors.

It’s a tricky juggling act, at best, but balancing the benefits and the liabilities and finding compromises is better than my critics’ suggestion that they all be banished and that I move overseas to join them since they own me anyway.

That’s the point at which I asked the caller if he was done. He finished about 10 minutes later, but not before he challenged my abilities as a writer and my work ethic, which I found insulting.

I’ve been writing for a long time. I still make mistakes, and try to correct them as soon as possible. But I am brash enough and confident enough to declare that I’m a bit more than competent at what I do. But I listened; I heard him out. I asked very few questions — when I could interrupt his non-stop verbosity long enough to get one in.

I did find out that he had not seen the film that he was defending so vociferously. He only objected to me criticizing it. That’s when I finally said what I had wanted to say for several minutes.

“You have a good day. Bye now.”


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