Friday, October 7, 2016

Farmers as Environmentalists

by Levi Russell

This morning in my daily ag reading I came across an article entitled "Greens Make Green." The author lays out the case for the farmer-as-environmentalist better than I've ever seen, so I thought I'd share it here. The underlying economic argument here is that there is great incentive compatibility between farmers (who are interested in long-term profits) and environmental sustainability. Do you find it compelling? Let me know in the comments.

In truth, farmers and environmentalists should be allies. The environmental and agricultural communities have more in common than conventional wisdom might suggest. Both desire to preserve our planet and its resources for future generations. I am not shy about saying farmers are the original environmentalists.

To a person, every farmer I have ever met is driven by an ethical obligation to protect the environment. They view themselves as stewards of the land. And for good reason: Nearly all want their children and grandchildren to carry on the tradition. Cousins Scott and Tom Deardorff II reflect the common theme of sustainability that connects the past to the present and future. Founded in 1937 by patriarch and great-grandfather W. H. Deardorff, Southern California-based Deardorff Family Farms has dedicated four generations to refining its environmental craft. For nearly eight decades, the Deardorff family has been driven by the relentless pursuit of improvement, pioneering many farming practices aimed at increasing productivity while reducing their reliance on natural resources.

Today, Scott and Tom have not only embraced but expanded the family legacy of stewardship. For example, they have invested heavily in the latest water-saving technologies, including drip irrigation and state-of-the-art weather stations and soil moisture monitors. The cousins have also curtailed the use of fertilizer and pesticides on their organic vegetable farms through innovative soil fertility programs and integrated pest management systems. And they recently completed construction on a cooling and packing facility that meets the highest green building standards in the country.

Multigenerational farms like theirs are the heart and soul of agriculture in the West and across the country. They are the very embodiment of sustainability. We should be so lucky as to entrust all our natural resources to the collective care of such thoughtful stewards.

If you can't bring yourself to buy the moral argument, at least consider renting the financial one. Farmers are business owners. They are motivated by sustainable profit. Their businesses are dependent on healthy soil and clean water, both of which lead to stronger yields and higher quality products. The math is quite simple: An environmentally healthy farm can deliver sustainable profits, while land that has been abused will one day cease to produce anything. Furthermore, inputs like fertilizer and pesticides are expensive; a business that doesn't minimize operating costs won't stay in business very long. Clean air, soil, and water are all outcomes supported by environmentalists. So why do so many continue to paint farmers as the enemy?

In his farewell address, President Eisenhower famously warned the nation against "unwarranted influence .  .  . by the military-industrial complex." Today we see the maturation of an environmental-industrial complex, defined by multimillion-dollar global enterprises closely integrated with academia and government regulators implementing environmental programs.

Like a storyline out of Mad Men, environmental activists have channeled their inner Don Drapers, fomenting fear of business and industry, and of human activity generally, in order to build a database of committed donors. It is an ingenious business model, used by corporate America since the early 1920s, when Gerard Lambert stigmatized halitosis to sell Listerine. Marketers have long understood that fear is a powerful motivating tool.

Every cause needs a bad guy, a threat that must be put down. For Listerine, it was bad breath. For too many environmental organizations, farmers—cast as the pillagers of Mother Earth—have served as compelling bogeymen (typically referred to as "corporate agriculture," "industrial agriculture," or the like) to alarm the 98 percent of Americans who aren't farmers.

We are all motivated to some degree by self-interest. Farmers are motivated by the love of farming and social good that comes from providing healthy food, and they are also motivated by the desire to succeed financially. Environmental activists working in big organizations aren't all that different. There is no doubt that most choose a career based on a commitment to environmental values and a desire to do good. And there is also no doubt that another motivation, and one that is entirely defensible, is the financial reward and career security that these organizations can provide.

Unfortunately, in the public debate, it is perfectly acceptable to point to farmers' financial motivations and equally unacceptable to acknowledge the financial motivations of environmental advocates. Those in private enterprise who are targeted by the policy and political initiatives of the environmental lobby ought to be more vocal about that.

If one can acknowledge the reality that the environmental lobby is motivated not only by the values of environmentalism, but also by the financial rewards of growing a motivated donor base, one might ask whether it would benefit these organizations to ever declare a problem solved. After all, while committed donors might feel good upon hearing such an announcement, they would also have one less reason to contribute.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than during the opposition waged against Senator Dianne Feinstein's compromise California drought legislation in 2014, which culminated in a joint-letter from multiple organizations slamming her bill.

Not one to seek the ire of environmentalists, the senator candidly responded—as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle—that they "have never been helpful to me in producing good water policy." She went on to lament, "I have not had a single constructive view from environmentalists of how to provide water when there is no snowpack."

The practice of environmental protection and the business of environmentalism are two sides of a scale. Our nation's natural resources have benefited from much that has come from the former, but today the scale is weighted too much to the latter. It is the business side of environmentalism that produces the political targeting of agriculture.

It should stop. We share a common aim: to safeguard the planet for its people, animals, and plants. Imagine how much good could be accomplished if all farmers, regardless of size, whether conventional or organic, were accepted and embraced as partners for environmental protection. Now that is a narrative I know Don Draper could sell.

Tom Nassif is president and CEO of the Western Growers Association.

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