The University of Wisconsin – Madison employed author and journalist Michael Pollan to speak about “In Defense of Food”  last week, as a follow-up to the  book’s highly controversial selection as the first literature on the “Go Big Read” university-wide reading list. According to Feedstuffs, Pollan received $25,000 for his appearance. Does this figure seem more than a little ironic when dairy farmers are losing roughly 50 cents for each gallon of milk they produce?

Laura Daniels, a third generation dairy farmer in southern Wisconsin, spearheaded the group of 100 farmers to have a presence at the Kohl Center since there was no opportunity for agriculture to share the platform with Pollan.  She’s a busy lady; beyond her roles as a wife and mom, she the family’s dairy operation from scratch and works part-time  as a dairy nutritionist. Laura’s passion is known by many in Wisconsin as she’s spoken out on behalf of agriculture for several years.  Following is her recap of the event.

We were pleased with the reception we received at the Kohl Center.  I think Mr. Pollan knew we were there, and that he adjusted his speech because of it.  He didn’t say anything about feedlots, antibiotics, GMO, chemicals breaking down the “health” of the soil. These are all underlying themes in the book – which were left out of the speech. He kept saying “I am not against farmers…” then depending which group he was talking to he would change the second part of that statement to… agribusiness is not necessarily looking out for the farmer;  it’s the system that is broke; or the farmers have to use this technology because everyone else is, etc.

There really are people who think community-based agriculture can feed our population. Since they think the rest of the world should feed itself they aren’t worried about the population growth anywhere else.  I have also found people starting to believe that those extremely labor intensive farms are better for the earth and farmers. I explained to a group of people who were asking questions, that was how my grandfather farmed, but that because of modernization I won’t have to have double knee replacements and a hip replacement by the time I am 55. I also mentioned my grandfather would be so proud of how well we can care for our cattle and our families with the farms we now have – and that he believed in progress just as much as I do. A few key learnings from this event:

1. We achieved media coverage because we represented exactly who we are, not people there to protest or pick a fight, but people with strong values who simply wanted to talk about the farms Pollan left out. In Wisconsin, he left out easily 99% of us – and he doesn’t represent the large farms fairly. We got the message to the press ahead of time so people knew they could talk to farmers.  We also worked to communicate to all of our farmers and ag supporters that they should talk to people and share their story. Both sides were ready to engage in a respectful dialog.

2. After listening to Pollan all week, on the radio, the speech, the panel discussion, answering questions. I think he really believes that if farms were small and far more labor intensive, more people could farm. I think he believes this not just in the U.S. but the world over. By speaking out about the evils of things like pesticides, antibiotics and monoculture farms, he encourages the small, organic, labor intensity he ultimately thinks is better.  It would also raise the price of food drastically, which he also believes would be good.

3. It’s always good to find common ground that we can all agree on. It’s also useful that people think about where their food comes from, it’s good to eat more vegetables and less junk, it’s good to eat with your family, etc. We made it clear we did not disagree with everything he writes, but his views on modern agriculture cannot go unchallenged.

4. When you are trying to deal with an author or a certain world view, it is good to actually read their material.  As this was bubbling up early on, I kept hearing people say he was an animal rights activist – he really isn’t.  If we had not successfully moved away from pigeon holing him – we would not have been taken as seriously as we were.

Laura did a great job with her recap of key learnings for agriculture. I have to wonder if Pollan did the same after a panel discussion gave a voice  to a farmer on how advancements help the farm better care for animals, land – and the nutrition they provide to humans.  Pollan responded that this was quite a story. As anyone in agriculture knows, farms – of all sizes – are not a story.  Farming is a family’s livelihood, part of the fabric that comprises their soul and a business. Farming is very real life – and I hope you take the example of 100 famers in Wisconsin to have a conversation with those who may not understand.