If I had a time machine, I’d use it to travel back to the time before the farm crisis of the 1980s dealt a severe blow to my family’s farm. I’d happily live through those days again when most of my family still worked on the farm — even if it meant I’d have to work harder than I do now.
But that’s just a fantasy. In reality, there was nothing in the world that could have made things remain the same on our farm over the course of four decades — just as there was nothing that could have kept my grandfather alive and healthy all this time.
As the old saying goes, change is the only constant.
Early this month a federal jury issued a verdict against a Smithfield Foods subsidiary, awarding six neighbors roughly $470 million in compensation for odors and noises emanating from hog farms. (It’s worth noting that North Carolina state law will cap the payout at $94 million.) One of the common comments I’ve noticed from farmers can be paraphrased as: “Farms that have been operating for 100 years are now in danger from people building houses in rural areas.”
While it’s true that in some parts of the country, rural farmland is being invaded by home builders as urban areas expand, it’s also true that those farms don’t operate in the same way they did 100 years ago.
Another comment I hear is: “People these days are too far removed from the farm to understand the necessities of their farming neighbors.” That’s true. There’s now a large portion of the population who no longer think the scent of manure is the scent of money. The culture of the countryside is changing.
So not only are our farming methods changing, but also the world is changing around us.
Where was it written that we’d always be able to farm the same way we’re farming right now? We’re not farming the same way we did a generation ago, so why should we assume we’ll be farming the same way a generation from now?
As we learn new and safer ways to conduct business, we make those changes to keep our industry current. Other industries do the same.
In the early parts of the 20th century, the hands and numbers on the dials of watches and clocks glowed in the dark thanks to radium paint. That lasted until it was discovered that the radioactive paint was killing the poor women charged with painting the hands and numbers.
Asbestos is rarely used in buildings today after it was discovered in the last century that it causes cancer.
DDT, once widely used in agriculture, was banned in the U.S. after it was discovered that the chemical is harmful to both humans and wildlife.
Last week, a jury issued a verdict against Monsanto (recently acquired by Bayer). The jury awarded $289 million to a plaintiff who said that exposure to the herbicide Roundup caused his cancer. The first of what is likely to be many glyphosate lawsuits, the case puts the future of the widely-used herbicide in doubt.
Two historically large verdicts issued in the same month have caused quite the uproar in the agricultural world. The moves away from radium, DDT, and asbestos were hardly less contentious. Yet, we still have watches with glow-in-the-dark numbers. We still have insecticides. We still have fire-retardant building materials.
Change is rarely a painless process, but it’s not one that will ultimately threaten the ag industry. I’m betting the world will not let itself stop producing food.
If we can make a change that will make our business safer and a better neighbor, a change that will take our industry into the future, then it’s a change we should make.