Last month, when I visited with several farmers and farm journalists on the telephone and with people who attended a Town Hall meeting at my local Shelby County Fair, nearly everyone I asked told me they are worried about increasing political and ideological divisions among agricultural producers, as well as among all Americans. They also hoped these differences would lessen.
This column takes a candid look at what is more important to agricultural producers: their political opinions and ideological beliefs, or their shared purpose as food producers. We begin with some background.
Famed animal ethologist, Robert Ardrey, proposed some 60 years ago that almost all forms of life engage in competition for the best territories in which to procreate their species. Humans also participated in survival of the fittest, which led some to leave Africa in search of food and other necessities for life some 1.5 million years ago, according to a July 11, 2018 article in Nature.
When modern humans in Southwest Asia figured out how to raise crops and livestock as farmers about 15,000 years ago, the urge to acquire the best land and sea territories didn’t dissipate. Instead, it led to greater competition for these assets.
Many wars have been fought, including The American Revolution, about who controlled the land and seas in the New World. Land issues in the U.S. reached more recent turning points during the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. I lived through the 1980s when many farmers were “going under” financially and all-too-common suicides occurred. With backing from Southwest Iowa Mental Health Center, I undertook grant-funded research and service projects to assist marginalized farmers.
Rampant acts of self-destruction gradually tapered off as farm crisis counseling services became available and as community education workshops were implemented. There were no farming-related homicides or serious violent demonstrations that I know of in the region.
Agricultural and rural Americans, in particular, were divided about the causes and solutions to the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, which Osha Gray Davidson chronicled in his book: Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto. He emphasized the mounting power of far-right-wing groups and predicted that political and ideological differences would increase.
In order to learn how agricultural producers feel now, I searched for published studies, but I could find no information about farmers’ opinions specifically. I found several opinion polls for the U.S. population as a whole.
According to the results of a February 23-26, 2021 survey of 1,283 U.S. adults, which was published by Public Agenda/USA Today on April 27, 2021 71 percent of the respondents said Americans have more in common than is reflected by political leaders or in the media, but 44 percent said the country’s ability to deal with major disagreements over the next decade will worsen.
Another survey, reported in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing on March 3, 2021, concluded that political polarization in the U.S. is increasing and leading to incivility, as well as the potential to harm physical and mental health. Jonathan Knutson, an agricultural journalist based in North Dakota who pointed me to this article said, “Probably most farmers recognize their commitment to producing food and other agricultural goods is more important than political party affiliations and ideological beliefs.”
I asked farmers: Would you assist a neighboring farmer who strongly disagrees with you about politics and personal beliefs if this person became disabled? Everyone I spoke with said something like, “It’s important to help our neighbors.”
My own experience bears this out. As I became less able to shovel snow, due to a heart condition, our renter and other neighbors have moved heavy snow in our driveway several times so that my wife and I could “get out” if necessary. Farmers in my area have always assisted one another, such as holding harvest bees when a neighbor has become disabled. Differences in politics and religion are ignored, even though they may be the subject of discussions over coffee.
I asked several people what helps to bridge political and ideological differences among farmers, even if the general public is less tolerable. Mr. Knutson said that meeting face-to-face is more likely to lead to common ground than airing differences online or in the print media. Several recommendations come to mind from what others whom I consulted, and I, have learned:
• We should treat others with whom we disagree as we would like them to treat us
• Our agrarian imperative to produce essentials for survival includes the protection of other agricultural producers and consumers
• Political and ideological differences can be resolved
• Community workshops and Town Hall meetings should be devoted to finding common ground, much like such forums are held to discuss other farming issues
• Working together is much more likely to lead to long-term solutions than conflict
• The greater good is the advancement of everyone, and that necessarily includes farmers