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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.