The author is a grass-finishing cattle farmer in central Kentucky and an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky. He can be reached at Greg.Halich@uky.edu.When I was about 5 years old, I desperately wanted to become a farmer like my grandfather and uncle. At that time, my family was living in the suburbs outside a large metropolitan area, and I longed for the trips back to the family farm in Steuben County, N.Y. I understood even at that young age what a farmer was in a general sense and what they did. The same could not be said about most of the adults I knew in the suburbs. As the years passed, my understanding of the two worlds became deeper, particularly related to community and purpose. My conviction was that I wanted to live and work in a real place. I wanted to be a farmer.
Fast forward years later when I started working in extension, and it quickly became clear that farmers were no longer referred to as “farmers,” but as “producers.” My bubble was burst: Never once had I dreamt of being a producer!
So thorough was the avoidance of the word by most of my colleagues that I assumed it must be considered an insult to use it and was somewhat shocked by this realization. This made no sense to me, but being new, I didn’t try to rock the boat. At the time, I didn’t give too much thought into the reasoning for this new verbiage, but I never stopped recoiling, just a little bit, every time I heard the word “producer.”
Fifteen years later, it still bothers me, and over the last few years I have started thinking about the change and the possible causes for it. Why did the land-grant system, along with the USDA and private industry, stop using the word “farmer,” and why was it replaced by “producer?” One potential reason is simply that producer implies efficiency. The livestock producer produces cattle. The grain producer produces corn. The vegetable producer produces produce. And so forth. The land-grant system is all about trying to be efficient, so this word fit very well with that image.
Another potential reason was an attempt by the land-grant system to add legitimacy and importance to those producing or growing our food. Based on earlier experiences in my life, there was a segment of society that looked down on farmers. This was before the era of the local food movement where the general public had been given a better understanding of the importance of farming and farmers. A subtle shift away from “farmer” to a new term that implied modernization, such as “producer,” was potentially a way to move past this bias. If this was the primary reason for the change in terms, it was done with good intentions.
I believe there is a more likely reason for the change in names. Traditional methods of farming and hence the word “farmer” had become synonymous with an outdated way of thinking in the agricultural research community. During the second half of the 20th century, the land-grant system was taking a more scientific approach to agricultural production. Previous methods of farming were based largely on community knowledge and tradition. The new system would be driven by science and the experts who understood it. A new term was needed, and “producer” was born.
What had previously been a healthy mix between art and science was usurped by a focus mainly on scientific prescriptions. Moreover, the scientific approach, to a large degree, required isolating specific questions or variables. It was difficult, if not impossible, to answer broad, systems-level research questions with this approach. Consequently, agricultural research went from understanding systems to focusing on the parts of those systems.
British agriculturalist Sir Albert Howard in discussing this transformation in agricultural research wrote: “The natural universe, which is one, has been halved, quartered, fractionized, and woe betide the investigator who looks at any segment other than his own!” What is amazing is that this was written nearly 75 years ago, and I can assure you the isolation of these various segments has only gotten worse. I can also personally assure you there is a very real “woe betide” price to be paid for stepping outside, or even peering outside, your allotted academic silo.
With the transformation of agricultural research, it was believed there was not just an E=MC2 for agriculture but a functional equation solution for each of the fractionized parts. It was believed that the same approach that worked for physics and mathematics to build the atomic bomb and get us to the moon would work equally well where human, cultural, physical, chemical, and biological components were combined into one interdependent system.
Equations implied a scientific approach, and a scientific approach implied rigor. Agriculture, as well as many other fields at this time, desperately wanted to be considered a hard science and rewarded faculty that pulled their departments in that direction. Statistics were further incorporated into agricultural research as well as other fields to imply confidence or certainty of results, and hence add validity to the prescriptive recommendations for soil fertility, pest control, and animal health. It was hoped that agricultural research would now be on equal footing as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering, and it would finally be seen as a true science.
However, there were critics warning about this new process. In particular, that the emphasis and overreliance on statistical methods as the main driving force for prescriptive recommendations would result in investigators divorcing themselves from real-world agriculture. It was feared that recommendations based solely on small plots and statistics, without being tempered by practical verification in real-world settings over a period of time, would be misleading. There were also warnings that secondary effects that were outside experimental boundaries (for example, soil biology changes caused by cattle wormers) would be missed by this research paradigm that attempted to isolate one or two variables and, in the process, exclude other important components of the overall system.
Why the change from farmer to producer? I believe a producer was seen as someone who would be willing to follow expert prescriptions, without too much questioning of the methods used to justify them — or their practicality. However, a farmer is by nature a problem solver.
Farmers historically faced much uncertainty, and hence had to adapt quickly and often. Very little was under their direct control. This required critical thinking skills to solve the myriad of new problems that were bound to occur. Most people who consider themselves “experts” do not want their clientele questioning their recommendations. They want them to follow. In short, farmer was no longer a good match for modern-day agricultural research and producer was a suitable replacement.
It is unfortunate that the word “farmer” has become largely shunned by the land-grant system. Thomas Jefferson would be dismayed by this change, as well as the resulting overreliance on expert advice. This founding father realized and went out of his way to make clear the importance of having farmers and citizens who were independent and critical thinkers. In more recent times, Wendell Berry brought up similar concerns in his pivotal book “The Unsettling of America.”
Producer or farmer? — which is better for long-term, permanent agriculture? Which is better for vibrant, rural communities and an independent country? Do we want citizens who have critical thinking skills, or do we want voters who will toe the party line and follow prescribed beliefs? I suspect I know which Thomas Jefferson had in mind almost 250 years ago, and I suspect I know which our two main political parties prefer today.
The final potential reason for the move away from “farmer” has nothing to do specifically with farming itself, but is a much broader societal issue. Once individuals or communities cede most of their important decisions to experts, they start losing their capacity for critical and independent thought. Once critical and independent thought is lost, we become more vulnerable to manipulation: commercially, culturally, and politically. Bread and circuses become the paramount issues of our lives. “Producer” or “farmer” in this light is an indication of where society in general may be headed.
Producer or farmer? Coming back to agriculture, and providing additional context, it seems like an easy question to answer. I’d be willing to wager that there has never been a 5-year-old boy or girl that ever dreamt of being a producer. But I’d bet there are a lot of people reading this right now, and many more that will follow, who dreamt and will dream of being a farmer at that age, just like I did many years ago. Ultimately, the question is not something that the land grants, USDA, or agribusinesses can answer. It will be decided by those actually producing and growing our food: what some of us call “farmers.”
This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 18-19.
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