Giving Our Thanks to the American Farmer
Edible Nation: a Conversation with Michael Ableman
Fall is our reminder to give thanks for the skill and intelligence of the American farmer. The largesse of our holiday table is due, in no small part, to the success of those we often take for unskilled, those whom we struggle to recognize, those whom we pay the least. Yet this bounty remains solely their inspiration and devotion. Every field, beginning with the tilling of the soil and the planting of seeds, is by their hand, not ours. Every harvest is according to their divinely-wrought calendar, not our Blackberry versions. And thank them we must.
In the past it may have been easier to thank the farmer. They were closer to us, they were a part of the up-close fabric of society, business and government. It was harder to skip a handshake and an honest eye-to-eye “thank you” when the farmer was also a town mayor, a teacher or lawyer. Today we shirk the personal duty we all have, believing that a pardoned turkey somehow relieves us of any personal responsibility for this simple act.
Maybe it’s because we wrongly believe that the simple act of commerce “should be thanks enough.” Or because we in America see our farmers as failures, not pretty or smart enough to make it in the big city. Lord knows we never thank the “failures” in our society, we just keep trying to do things for them that we think they will need—which they never do—or we simply thank ourselves for all of the work we think we’ve done for them.
I asked my friend, farmer and author Michael Ableman about the thanks we owe to every farmer in America; even to the ones we never see or get to know. Michael made it clear that while the graciousness of a “thank you for everything you do” was music to a farmer’s ear, it only scraped the surface of the real message.
“Asking ourselves ‘What is a farmer?’ is an important step toward distinguishing and thanking them appropriately,” he said, alluding to the notion many hold today that farmers aren’t smart enough to do anything but the hard physical labor of the farm. “Recognizing, appreciating and seeking out the skills and knowledge base that a modern farmer must have and engaging them in our civic discussions is an important step toward giving them their proper credit in our society.” He gently reminded me that until we started electing lawyers to run our government, most roles were filled by those with on-going farming interests. The holidays of Congress are still scheduled to coincide with planting and harvesting.
“Building relationships with our customers is also important.” Michael added, “The feedback and interaction with customers at the farmers’ market and from chefs when a delivery is made are more important for me now.” I asked him why and the answer was exactly what I expected. “The respect of my work and the appreciation of the quality and flavor of the peas or corn or whatever I’ve brought is really great. With me, it’s still all about the food.”
Being able to make a decent living from farming is also a highly-important form of thanks. Certainly, a few producers are well-off, but the vast majority struggle to make ends meet just from their farm income. And while consumer demand for all manner of specialty items continues to rise, the prices consumers are willing to pay for those items is still often uneconomically low.
The price for a basket of tomatoes at most farmers’ markets today is exactly what it was in the late 1800s—about $2.00—leaving some 75 percent of farms here in Tennessee to earn the equivalent of a part-time fast food job each year. Michael put it as clearly as I think anyone could about the balance of earning potential for farmers and the relative importance of farmers in our society. “If we were to pay those that provide us with our food the same as what we pay our doctors and lawyers, we would need far less doctors and lawyers.”
Changing our perceptions of farmers and engaging them in the important discourses of the day are ways that we might thank them. Building lasting relationships and paying them in respect for not only the work they do, but also for putting up with our insisting nature are ways we might thank them as well. And thank them we must.
Michael Ableman is the author of Fields of Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2005). www.fieldsofplenty.com