Will the Media Ever ‘Get’ the Organic Food Movement?

//Will the Media Ever ‘Get’ the Organic Food Movement?

Will the Media Ever ‘Get’ the Organic Food Movement?

I opened my computer browser early Tuesday morning to the following headline: “Startling Results of Organic Food Study”. Oh, great, I said to myself, sighing deeply and taking another sip of tea. Here we go.

A picture of a random guy stocking fruit?! Ooh, I must know more!!!

As a sustainable farmer with a legion of farming friend peers, I can assure you that ‘startling’ is not an adjective we toss around willy-nilly. We’re a rather tranquil lot in general, and do our best to move peacefully through the world. ‘Startling organic studies’? To my ears, these words carried the same tenor of ‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Fortunately, on the very same page, another headline was also featured: “Performance So Bad You Can’t Look Away” (see screenshot below). Seeing these words adjacent to the organic expose was instantly therapeutic for me, and quickly put both headlines into context. Plain and simple, these articles were intended to shock the reader into noticing; whether the content bothered to correlate with the dramatic innuendo seemed little more than an afterthought.

I especially like the use of the word ‘raunchy’ in the sub-header. If I ever use the word ‘raunchy’ in a blog title, feel free to unfriend me.

So it came as no surprise when the study itself revealed that the headline was more or less erroneous, and there was really no ‘startling’ evidence to be found. In fact, I’d even go so far as to re-title the article “Boring Study Tells Us Exactly What We Already Knew About Organic Food.” I won’t bother to rehash the details, but if you haven’t read it, here and here are versions for your perusal.

As is the norm, journalists quickly turned to the experts for a rebuttal. I especially liked Michael Pollan’s instant analysis:

“I think we’re kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it’s more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable. That’s the stronger and easier case to make. (see full interview here.)

The L. A. Times editorial page also weighed in, noting:

“What’s most glaring about the Stanford review is what’s missing from it, which is any examination of processed foods. You can’t get a realistic picture of health effects by looking at fruits, veggies and meats but none of the processed items that make up the bulk of the American diet. (see full editorial here).

As much as I appreciated both of these responses, I found myself wondering: why is it that journalists immediately reached out to other journalists for a response, instead of asking organic farmers what they thought about the study?

I accompanied these young farmers on a recent farm tour, and not once did I notice anyone texting their girl or boyfriend. 2 hours, over 40 twenty-somethings, and not a single text message! Hope remains for our future.

Don’t get me wrong. I deeply admire inquisitive, courageous reporting, those rare, intrepid writers who turn over stones, ask uncomfortable questions, and dig a little deeper for the sake of their profession. In this vein especially, Michael Pollan has been a credit to his press-pass (I can safely assume that Michael Pollan still has a press pass somewhere, right?). But it begs the question. Where’s the feedback from farmers, the people actually growing the food in question?

I have a pretty good idea of where the farmers can be found. The singer John Prine once wrote:

Blow up your t.v., throw away your paper,

Go to the country, build you a home.

Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,

Try to find Jesus on your own.

(If you’ve never heard this song, enjoy it here.)

I have no way of knowing whether John Prine intended to write the National Anthem of Organic Farming, but he certainly came close. As far as I can tell, I’m one of the few farmers in my peer group (and it’s a large and expanding group) who, on a daily basis, follows politics, reads morning headlines, listens to pop radio, and enjoys sports. I saw The Avengers, and can tell you which baseball teams are currently chasing the pennant. That I’m a bit of an oddball amongst my fellow sustainable farmers only underscores the following point: what I do with my free-time is utterly mainstream, perhaps even boringly so. At the end of the work day, I catch an episode of the Daily Show, skim interesting headlines on Slate and The Atlantic, and read classic novels.

Don Magnany, a career vegetable farmer who owns Flowers of the Forest Farm in Maryland, is one of the few farmers I know who enjoys watching sports. Go Nats!

Boring? No doubt. But if you think that’s dull, check out my farming friends.

Many of them don’t own a television. Seriously. They don’t have an i-Phone, or a Facebook page, or know what an ‘app’ is. A lot of them still listen to cd’s (you know, those space-age, iridescent discs that harken back to the era of Milli Vanilli and the Backstreet Boys). My friends stare blankly when I offer to download the new Strokes album for them from my i-Pod.

This is not to say that my farming friends are Luddites. They’re not necessarily ‘out of touch’, or completely disconnected from mainstream society. In fact, they’re some of the most progressive, educated and outgoing folks you’ll ever meet… especially when it comes to growing food.

And when it comes to the current food/media disconnect, that’s exactly the point. Collectively, these  farmers have blown up their t.v.’s, moved to the country, and planted little gardens. In their free time, they eat a lot of peaches (and apples, and tomatoes, and even homemade sausages. Did I mention many of them brew their own beer, too?), and try to find their own inner peace, an acre or two or twenty of personal, quiet space.

They’ve largely abandoned the world of attention-grabbing headlines, shredding old newspapers into compost. Some of them have found Jesus, but the vast majority of them don’t particularly care about organized religion. These farmers may be of this world, yet they intentionally stay an arms-length away from much of society.

Of course, the world needs food, and lots of it. Despite our diverse, individual backgrounds, food education is increasingly paramount to our global well-being. So what is to be done about this disconnect between reporters and farmers? Will the media ever ‘get’ farming (and more specifically, the sustainable/organic/local movement), and somehow understand that growing food is about more than just dollars and cents?

Dan Michaelson is getting his Master’s in Environmental Engineering from the University of Maryland, and intends to start his own farm soon. Dan is super-smart, but he CANNOT name a single American Idol.

Michael Pollan certainly got the ball rolling with ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ and Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver and Joel Salatin continue to fill in many of the blanks. As a career farmer, I have no idea what it’s like to be a journalist. But I know for a fact that my farming friends are wholly consumed by their passion for growing food, and have precious little time to weigh in on so-called controversial studies. Are there any journalists out there doing a noteworthy job of navigating this divide? Let me know what you think. In the meantime, as far as my farming friends are concerned, ‘startling headlines’ can’t be startling if they’re never read to begin with.

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By | 2015-09-22T09:54:26+00:00 September 7th, 2012|Farm|13 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

13 Comments

  1. Barbara Esstman September 7, 2012 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    Nice writing, good thoughts!

  2. Tracy Seman September 8, 2012 at 6:02 am - Reply

    Great article. My husband pointed out an article to me this week in our paper too saying there is no benefit to eating organic. I don’t read the paper or watch the news. It just frustrates me. Anytime something good is going on… movement towards organic and true health (no processed junk foods) you can bet the paper or news will report something against is. So sad.

    • Forrest Pritchard September 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      I agree, Tracy. And that’s exactly why I asked if there were any journalists out there currently breaking new ground in the pursuit of balanced reporting. Call me an optimist, but I want to believe that some inquisitive writer out there is examining the multi-faceted angles of this story…

  3. Heather Szklarski September 8, 2012 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Great article, thanks! My husband and I run a small farm, part-time and though we do have I-pods and watch the Daily Show via internet…we don’t have a TV, watch sports or own I-phones (and don’t intend to get one, either.) We were also, not so shocked at the results of this study and still believe that organic is healthier simply because fewer dangerous chemicals are being unleashed into the environment and the food system.
    I always enjoy your writing…keep it up!

    • Forrest Pritchard September 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      Thank you, Heather. Of course, I was generalizing about farmers and their complete detachment from culture… but you obviously get the greater point :^)

  4. Lynette September 8, 2012 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Greetings, my husband and I are Organic Farmers here in Western NY and we were fortunate to have YNN out of Rochester NY come to our Farm and talk to us about what Organic farmers have to say about the recent study released from Stanford University. Take a look at how we answered their questions concerning this study. Look up YNN Rochester on Facebook to see our interview!

  5. Lynsi September 9, 2012 at 2:23 am - Reply

    Another great blog post, Forrest. Thank you.

  6. James September 10, 2012 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Forrest. I really enjoyed this. I think about this kind of thing all the time here where I eat from a “farmers market” everyday (although everyone just calls it a maket). There really are no big surprises in organic farming. My parents have done it for years and I’m living in a culute where people would scoff at the idea of walking into a big name store and buying produce or meat that was harvested a week ago. Keep up the good work (both blogging and farming).

    • Forrest Pritchard September 13, 2012 at 5:27 am

      Hey James!

      Thanks for the response. Are you still in SE Asia (I’m assuming that’s the culture to which you’re referring…)?

    • James Ankers September 14, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Still here for the foreseeable future.

  7. Heather McPhail October 24, 2012 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Hi, Forrest,

    I have been a grass-fed meat and organic veggies and fruits consumer for years. My heart sank when I saw the headlines, but when I read the small article in the Washington Post, there was no mention about the quality of the soil or produce itself in terms of nutrients and taste. What about the fact that most organic produce TASTES better, and therefore people are more likely to EAT it! I believe that is why so many people don’t eat their vegetables. What about the fact that many, at least smaller, organic farmers are building up their soil quality? What about the fact that organic produce exposes farm workers to fewer chemicals?

  8. […] of my own efforts. As some of you will remember, I am one of those who take a step beyond buying organic, hormone free and buy pasture fed and pasture finished meat for my own table, because it makes a […]

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