Are Conventional Farmers Evil?

Posted on Jul 13 2011 - 2:30am by Mike Lieberman

There was a great post on Cooking Up a Story titled The Unconventional Harvest: Conventional Dairy Farmer Art Thelen written by Nathan Winters.

The Conventional Side of the Story

Nathan stayed with a conventional dairy farmer, Art Thelen, in Wisconsin and had the chance to check out his farm and speak with art about his farming methods.

Stories like this are great because they give the other side of the story. It’s easy for people to get all preachy and demonize the farmers as if they are intentionally poisoning us and ruining the environment. That kind of attitude doesn’t help to bring about the change that we all want to see happen.

Most of these farmers have been pitched and sold on a way of farming that is supposed to yield more crops, be easier for them to maintain, all at lower costs. So I don’t think it’s the farmers that are to point the finger at. It’s government and the chemical companies to blame.

You Can Justify Anything You Want

With that being said there were three points in the article that stuck out to me. The first was the quote from Art, “Milk is milk! I don’t care if you are payin’ 3 dollars a gallon for regular milk or if you’re payin’ 6 dollars for organic milk. Milk is milk!”

I think there is a huge difference between the milk from a cow that’s been jacked up on hormones, milked for hours and days on end and is fed an unnatural diet compared to one that is grass fed, free roaming and treated more naturally.

The next statement that I had problems with is from Art’s wife. She said, “I am a good mother. Do you think that I would let my kids drink milk if it wasn’t healthy? Are you a spiritual person? I am firm believer that God has given us this technology. He has given us the tools to grow these crops so we are able to feed our animals and ultimately feed the world. When you are a farmer you are very close to God. He looks over the production of our food and he looks over us.”

C’mon religion? You are going to justify that with religion? That’s a faulty argument if I’ve ever heard one. You can twist it to fit anything you want. Pretty sure that terrorists justify what they are doing in the name of religion.

Her argument has zero validity to me. I wonder if she’d say the same thing about abortions, the death penalty and drugs? I mean God obviously gave us all of those too.

The final part of the article that rubbed me the wrong way was how Nathan concluded the article, “Art Thelen was simply doing what he loved and what was best for his family. Most of all, he was doing what he felt God had wanted him to do. Can anyone argue with that?”

Yes this might be true. I don’t necessarily believe that Art is an evil man that is plotting to destroy the environment and our health, but again does that justify what he is doing on his farm? There are plenty of people that love what they do and do it because it’s best for their family. That doesn’t necessarily make it right.

You can justify lots of actions in that way. The Nazi soldiers might not have necessarily agreed with what they were doing, but they carried out their orders because it was best for their families. That statement is likely gonna piss off a lot of people and I’m not comparing Art to a Nazi soldier, but I’m comparing the justifications of the actions.

It’s the Chemical Companies, Not the Farmers

With all of this being said, I don’t think that the farmers are the ones that we should necessarily be pointing our fingers at and demonizing. They have all bought into the system that has been pitched and sold to them. They are busting their asses to get by and doing a pretty good job of it.

It’s the system and those that are selling this to the farmers that are the ones we should be faulting. A farmer like Art can likely run circles around any of us when it comes to working hard. It would beneficial to get someone like him to change his ways than to argue with him.

Sound Off

The question is how do we reach out to farmers like Art to explain the benefits of sustainable and organic practices? What’s your thoughts on Nathan’s story of Art and conventional farmers?

Photo courtesy of Maraker on Flickr

43 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Lauren July 13, 2011 at 11:11 am -

    Great post. I don’t think conventional farmers are evil but I do think they’re uninformed. Religion? Let’s not use religion to justify things beyond justification. Let’s check in with this family in 20 years and see how a diet of hormones and such works.

  2. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 1:45 pm -

    That’s the scary part. There are no real long term studies of effects because it’s all so new.

  3. GrothFarms July 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm -

    I appreciate attempts by the organic/local/foodie movement to try to not seem accusatory by placing blame on “the system” rather than convnetional farmers themselves.  But in doing so the people attempting to change agriculture come off as equally condescending.  Blaming big ag or government policy for our food systemt implies that conventional famers like me are ignorant rubes who cannot think for themselves.  We are cast as victims, helpless and as the previous commenter suggested, uninformed.  Thats maybe not what you intend to say, but thats how it comes off.
     Today’s agriculture is a product of evolution, not revolution.  Most farmers will always seek out the technology that benefits their bottom line in the short term.  Without a profitable short term, there will be no long term.  You can change the 2012 farm bill all you want and encourage grazing and the production of organic veggies, but in 2015, Iowa will still be covered in corn and beans.  There are many factors beyond public policy and chemical company sales pitch that will determine how we farm in the future.

    As someone who has farmer both the low imput, organic way and the high output convnetional way, I’m sorry but milk IS milk.  Your above comments about dairy production are ignorant and offensive. 

    If you want to discuss this more, email me:

  4. Suzy July 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm -

    That is exactly the argument I’ve been having with myself about how to change people’s complacency (and lack of awareness) on organics over Monsanto. It’s hard to not sound like every single statement is coming from the top of a soapbox!

    To me it’s all important enough to seem very emergent and dire. Though, I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a panicker, these issues movitate me to inform others. A day not informed is another day allowing people to be exposed to and ingest things that are NOT healthy in the long run. But I also find that I seem like a radical when I address these issues with the uninformed…and that doesn’t always end up well here in the middle of wheat growing country (oklahoma).

    When you come up with a great moderate campaign template let us know! 🙂


  5. Anonymous July 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm -

    I certainly agree that the farmer is not evil for farming conventionally. That is a ludicrous argument.
    However, based on his statements in the article, you can be almost 100 % guaranteed that he and his wife are supporters of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is a fascist working tirelessly to destroy the fabric of democracy, tear down working families and bankrupt the state of Wisconsin, transferring the wealth of that state into the pockets of the Koch brothers.
    And if that is the case, then the farmer in the article most certainly is evil. Not because of the way he farms, but because he supports fascism.

  6. Suzy July 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm -

    As a parent…Milk is NOT milk! I choose safe and healthy milk despite it’s higher cost to me.  In the long run that cost is a small one to pay for a healthier future for my children.

    And if the farmers really thougth about the long term then they would be willing to face the hard choice of being socially responsible as well as responsible to their own family’s income. If you choose to farm in unhealthy ways saying that “some day” you may farm differently and that it’s a process when do you actually start the healthy farming? Seems like you gotta just make the decision and know that you are doing the right thing and that the market will catch up to you — or get out of the kitchen. Kinda like a bankrobber saying he’ll use the booty to start a school for the underpriveledged!

    Claiming that you aren’t a rube isnt’ really exhibited when you continue to use the technology that benefits your bottom line and does absolutely the reverse for the public. Unhealthy farming may help today’s bottom line but the future is fraught with increased health costs caused by that discount. And not just for your customers…but the land you abuse with that technology is also being damaged.

    And when the “revolution” in farming does take hold then Iowa may still be covered with corn and beans but they will be organic ones.

    (And, technically, any revolution is part of evolution. And I think your desire to only discuss further this topic off the message board is kinda classless.)

  7. Donna July 13, 2011 at 3:56 pm -

    Suzy, that’s not a fair comparison. Bankrobber and conventional farming? I think it is important to listen to people who are in the trenches. How can farmers think long term if they are facing bankruptcy tomorrow? For many farmers I don’t think it is about making a greater profit, but about survival. 

  8. Elizabeth July 13, 2011 at 4:01 pm -

    Hmmm.  I think they could have gone to California and looked at one of the 15000 cow CAFOs rather than Wisconsin.    1000 cows?  There are much worse than that.  I come from family of dairy farmers, many of my relatives still farm here in WI …small family farms of 150 or so dairy cows.  He also seemed to find the WI accent something to make fun of.  We are not yokels here.   Some of my relatives “even done graduated  from highschool”  .  Just kidding.  They actually have college and higher degrees in business, agriculture, environment science etc.  He also seemed to find the religion aspect objectionable.     I am guessing if the family was something other than Christian, it would not even have come up in the conversation and faith would not have been belittled.  

    Also, my relatives do not support Scott Walker, as a blanket statement expressed by
    worfington.  No one works harder than a farm family and to portray them as evil is totally unfair.  I am sure some farmers do support Walker, but it not an across-the-board support.

  9. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm -

    I can’t say for sure, but I think that most factory farmers and CAFO owners wouldn’t be as open and willing to speak as Art did, which is great. I think Nathan did a great job of telling Art’s story without criticizing him.

    The point of my post was to say that we shouldn’t criticize the farmers as that doesn’t accomplish much. 

  10. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm -

    I don’t know much about Scott Walker and what you are talking about.

  11. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 4:57 pm -

    Hahaha. Working on it. That’s why I don’t like studies and reports because they can get you to show anything. To me it’s simple when people ask me. Monsanto is the same company that produced Agent Orange. I don’t want that company to be producing my food. No report needed 😉

  12. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 5:01 pm -

    I am by no means a farmer and respect all that farmers do. Unfortunately chemical companies sales pitches and lobbying dollars is what determines what and how things are farmed. They pull the strings of the government and have the ear of farmers. I’m not claiming farmers are ignorant and stupid people at all. I can totally understand what’s going on and why they are opting to do what they do. 

    As for the milk is milk argument, I disagree. Is beef just beef? 

    I appreciate you taking the time to discuss and leaving a comment. All voices are certainly encouraged and welcomed.

  13. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm -

    Suzy thanks for your comment. I hear you on the bank robber analogy. Makes perfect sense. Those are the analogies that I usually use as well. They are extreme, but make a point.

    Also, please refrain from the name calling. It doesn’t help to further the discussion and dialog. 

    Thanks again for the comment.

  14. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm -

    I hear you Donna and that’s part of the problem. The current life of a farmer isn’t easy by any means. From what I know they get themselves into crazy amounts of debt. 

    I guess the question becomes is it ok to do something for your survival that you either might not agree with or can potentially be doing harm?

  15. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm -

    Judi – Thanks for the comment. I am not saying that they are evil. I was asking the question and said that I don’t think they are.

    35 people ain’t really that bad if you wanna compare it to other food borne diseases that have been spread because of factory farming and resulted in many more deaths.

    I too am thankful for having choices, but I would like to be able to choose and not have things forced upon me. 

    I would love to have someone like Art growing and doing things in a sustainable way. A guy like that would run circles around me.

    If you know me, which I don’t think you do, you would know that I am completely open to discussions and other points of view. There is no one and definitive side to a story. 

    Appreciate you stopping by to leave a comment and drop your link.

  16. Mary C. July 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm -

    Well, from what’s I seen and read conventional farmers in the US have been farming that way their whole lives and ingrained with what the chemical fertilizer/herbicide/insecticide companies have told them regarding health, safety & profitability of their products. It is really hard to get a person to see that what they’ve believed their entire life and has worked for them may not be true or the best method. Also, change is scary especially when it means overhauling the business that’s been providing for your family. So attacking a conventional farmer with save the envirnonment/protect your health/prevent super weeds & bugs agruments with will likely  just make them dig in their heels even deeper.

    I think the best way would really be to demonstrate the many benefits to the individual farmer of switching to (or at least adopting many) organic practices. Losing the expense of buying chemical fertilizers, herbicides & insecticides and having them applied to entire crop fields. Increased profitability by being able to market their produce as organic. No risk of losing their entire monocrop to disease by diversifying their crops. Have organic farmers perform outreach to conventional farmers and demonstrate how their farm runs, where the initial investments go and how long until they see a return on them, how to start making the changes, how it’s increased their yields and income. Help a conventional farmer  understand that it’s achievable in a reasonable time frame and will keep their business financially sound and their families taken care of.

  17. Elizabeth July 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm -

    You can probably google him and see all the problems he has been causing the State of WI the last few months.  It is one mis-use of power after another.  The farmers drove their tractors to the Capitol to protest among the hundreds of other groups that have protested.

  18. SherryGreens July 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm -

    What about the companies that are buying up all the food from the farmers?  The dairy food companies, the chicken companies, the beef companies – they are putting pressure on farmers, and threaten pulling their contracts if they don’t comply.   These pressures usually do not involve doing things in a more natural or sustainable way.

    I think that change comes from the consumer.  If we demand it, somehow, they will farm it.  We have to demand better, we have to buy up all the organic milk in the grocery store so the grocerer orders more or looks for new suppliers or asks existing suppliers to provide an organic option.  Then farmers will start to change.  Then they will see an economic incentive to do so. 

    I just converted to organic milk, and will never go back.

  19. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm -

    That sounds like a great plan. You gonna write it up so we can start presenting? 😉

  20. Mike Lieberman July 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm -

    We as consumers certainly have the power and need to utilize it. 

  21. Mary C. July 13, 2011 at 11:08 pm -

    O.O please, I’m no expert, and it needs to be farmer-to-farmer to really be

  22. Katherine Kelley July 14, 2011 at 2:44 am -

    I don’t think that they are evil.  They are often, just doing what they know.  Many modern farmers are simply out of touch with sustainable, healthy practices because they haven’t seen it firsthand.  I also agree that larger corporations use scare tactics to keep the farmers in line with current conventional practices.  I don’t blame them, I feel for them.  Even if they wanted to change the capital to do so must be enormous and most farmers live just as much check to check as many of the rest of us.  In short, I blame Big Ag and the gov’t, not the farmer.

  23. Mike Lieberman July 14, 2011 at 3:18 am -

    I’m with you on that, but apparently that is insulting to say about the farmer…

  24. Anita Stuever July 17, 2011 at 9:00 pm -

    You think you can teach farmers anything–seriously? Farmers are not brainless drones. Most have gone to college to learn the science behind what they do. They go to workshops, participate in professional organizations, read magazines, network with other farmers and experiment to learn the best ways to produce food. I know farmers with PhDs. Your ignorance about the subject is overwhelming. Cows are not “jacked up on hormones”; they’re not “milked for hours and days on end”; they’re not “fed an unnatural diet.” Farmers are not the victims of agribusiness. Like any other business, there are efficiencies of scale. Big does not equate to bad. As a communication professional, I’ve been on many farms and I’d be happy to take you to some. I’ve been allowed to walk around farms alone and take any photos I want. It’s you who needs the education. Please get it before “informing” any more people with false information. 

  25. Mike Lieberman July 18, 2011 at 1:21 am -

    Farmers can run circles around me. I’d be foolish to think anything otherwise. As a communications professional that has been in the agriculture business for as long as you, I expect you to defend your profession. 

    As a communications professional, I would also  expect something better than attempting to put me down to prove your point. I’m open for discussion and dialogue, but when people start with the belittling and name calling, the lines of communication have been shut down.I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and leaving a comment. 

  26. Tilapia Farmer July 23, 2011 at 2:43 am -

    Anita, are you saying the milk they feed our kids in school is safe. Safe after the cows have been injected with hormones and steroids so they can produce more milk.  More milk for more profit for who. Are you saying that the cow milk fed to our kids in school is not making them hit puberty early. Does the milk not have anything to do with obeast America. Our country has never witnessed a milk shortage. Why must the modern farmer use the dangerous cancer causing chemicals to produce our milk. If the modern day milk farmer knows so much about what they are doing, If they are so educated going to there farmers workshops, then why are they using unethical farming practices when producing a food crop for fellow Americans? How come the practices used in the US milk production industry are not allowed in Canada? How come the milk producers get celebrities that our kid love,  to advertise milk as good for you. No offense to the local farmers whom are running a “considerate of there customer” operation. But large agribusiness does not have our health as there priority. They are focused on record profits and will not let anything get in the way. Monsanto does not care about you or me. They claim they can end world hunger but the prices continue to rise. Wake up America, the system you are trusting is a big lie.

  27. Farmerfanny July 23, 2011 at 6:19 am -

    Being raised by a poor farmer grandfather who milked the cows twice a day and raised his own beef & some for friends and family I know farming is tough. But my grandfather never fed his cows ground up dead animals or shot them up with hormones. They roamed the pasture and had some grain while being milked. A couple of them died when the neighbors used nasty pesticides on their hops. I couldn’t breath well for 40 yrs. I finally figured out that I can’t use milk products, now I can breath. Cow’s milk is intended for baby cows to grow big and strong, they grow fast. Cows milk is very high in fat and the calcium “they” claim we need so bad isn’t digested by humans as we don’t have 3 stomachs like cows do. The best way to get your calcium is to eat green leafy veggies. Milk is big business & I want you to stop putting it into everything. I also believe milk isn’t milk, if the cow is mad the milk will be too.
    As for the statement about the organic sprouts killing people, they were probably contaminated by contaminated water from cows near by.

  28. Mike Lieberman July 24, 2011 at 2:09 am -

    The system is definitely a huge lie. Need to keep letting people know.

  29. Mike Lieberman July 24, 2011 at 2:10 am -

    The business aspect of it is craziness gone out of control.

  30. Mike Lieberman August 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm -

    Anita – Of course Cornell is going to favorably publish information about Monsanto and GMOs as they are funded by them.

    Your voice and opinion is appreciated and thank you for regurgitating agribusiness propaganda.

  31. Moja Mujaden August 24, 2011 at 11:38 am -

    I’m so glad to have found this wonderful website.  Regarding the topic, if one is talking on “evilness” per se, i don’t know, only God has the right to do that. hehehee Living in a country where “organic veggies, organic pesticides, organic farming” etc are still limited or may not even be heard of or practiced may have a different bearing on the subject.  But i guess, its just striking a balance between two technologies because  if done excessively, would certainly bring unfavorable results.  I guess, it will only be harmful (not evil) if both parties are just geared to earn more profit from it.    

  32. Mike Lieberman August 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm -

    Yes. Evil is definitely a strong word to use in this case.

  33. Elinor December 7, 2011 at 10:03 am -

    What’s with the “milked for hours and days one end” comment? Both organic and conventional cows are milked for the same length of time…the only idfference is that organic cows must eat organic feed, can only be treated with organic treatments fro illness (except vaccines, those are allowed) and must have access to pasture. No difference in milking time. All farmers milk their cows 2 or 3 times per day and it takes about 5 minutes each time.

  34. Mike Lieberman December 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm -

    Thank you for sharing your opinion. It’s much appreciated.

  35. Elinor December 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm -

    It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.  I think all would appreciate if you  did not include non-factual information. 

  36. Mike Lieberman December 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm -

    Elinor – I welcome your opinion and appreciate your voice. I would appreciate it if you spoke to me in a respectful manner. 

    As a University of Minnesota alumni, I expect you to back your funding company. I hold no ill will against you.

  37. AugustineThomas July 25, 2014 at 9:04 pm -

    The biggest thing is you guys are all dumb hypocrites. You have the lowest food costs in the world because farms are subsidized. If you guys were willing to pay as much for food as Europeans, farmers wouldn’t need subsidies.
    And how about if the government stopped taxing farmers to death? Then also farmers wouldn’t need subsidies.
    (By the way, only corn, soy and a few other crops are subsidized. Most fruit growers and those who grow less common vegetables are not subsidized at all and are some of the hardest working people on the planet.)

  38. AugustineThomas July 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm -

    You do realize that most of you would starve to death if all farmers had one family farm with no chemicals or fertilizer? (This is what happens when amateurs pretend to be experts.)

  39. Mary C. July 26, 2014 at 8:18 am -

    Trying to grow food without anything to fertilize it? No that would fail pretty quickly. But this article isn’t suggesting that, neither was I.
    Fertilizers created from or enriched with man-made synthetic products didn’t come around until recently in the history of agriculture. Humans were able to grow enough food to sustain societies for thousands of years without synthetics. Using essentially organic fertilizers like compost, manure and guano. There are others. Now that we’ve developed and used them yeah they can increase some crop sizes and yields but at a cost to the enironment. We could go back to the way we farmed before, it worked for most of human history.
    We could also relearn how to do without chemical pesticides…like farmers did for most of history as well. Not every new technology is good just because we created it, sometimes we goof.

  40. AugustineThomas July 26, 2014 at 9:40 pm -

    Good luck feeding even a tenth of the current population with compost, manure and guano alone.
    Humans often starved to death for thousands of years because their crops were unreliable. American farmers revolutionized farming, fed the world and taught it how to farm so it could feed its population. I’m quite sick and tired of ignorant hippies calling American farmers evil while they enjoy the benefits of cheap and abundant food.

  41. Mary C. July 27, 2014 at 8:59 pm -

    yeah but crops are still unreliable today. Seems most often due to weather like the drought here in California right now and the bad spring in the midwest this year. Of course in these times we also have opportunities to ship food into areas hit by failed crops for areas with an abundance.
    If you’re linking the idea of Americans revolutionizing farming to the development of synthetic fertilizers, a great amount of the first synthetic fertilizers were developed in Europe. Especially by English and Norwegian scientist. The biggest contributions by American companies have been more about developing pesticides and GMOs.
    I’m not sure if you’re including me in the ignorant hippies you’re upset about. I have never called any farmer evil, and I’ve certainly not thrown any insults at farmers in my comments. I respect farmers a great deal, my grandparents and great grandparents and many generations before them on both sides were farmers and ranchers.
    The title of this article posited the question but if you’ll have a second look through the conclusion is no they are not.

  42. AugustineThomas July 27, 2014 at 9:27 pm -

    The scientific output of the United States is clearly very closely connected to that of Europe. Still, the Americans did the most in developing all the chemicals that have increased the output of farming and Americans fed the world and showed them how to farm more than the Europeans did. Anyway, I’m not trying to take credit away from European farmers (American farmers of old were just European farmers who had moved to North America).

    I’m glad to hear that you’re not so foolish as to try to demonize the people who feed you cheaply.

  43. Anita August 21, 2014 at 3:59 am -

    Correct. It is insulting to say farmers are “out of touch” and not smart enough to evaluate the choices of the inputs they purchase.

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