Steer the change

Leadership is critical for agriculture’s place in society

As a farmer, and part of agriculture, you are on a stage much larger than just growing food and fiber—whether you want to be or not. The way that you do business and the future of your communities are part of an evolving society where change sometimes improves your lot, sometimes disrupts it and sometimes pulls it up by the root. Yet change can be managed. It can be steered. The only way to ensure that this evolution isn’t disruptive or damaging to rural life and agriculture is to lead the change.

MFA covers a diverse geography of the Midwest, much of which is contained in the borders of Missouri. In the past half dozen years, this state has been an interesting petri dish for societal views on livestock, regulation, land rights and other decisions that affect rural living. Contention, like this year’s grain crops, has been bountiful. Even among agriculture’s own constituency, there has been dissension that has, on occasion, breached absurdity.

This editorial won’t call for a why-can’t-we-all-get-along solution to differences among farmers. That call is too often a crutch. It is too often a way to kick a can down the road. No, it is better to sharpen minds and to clearly form and communicate a philosophy for agriculture—and then let the best ideas win. We need leadership from the ranks of agriculture to solve our internecine battles. We need agricultural leaders to stand for farming and rural living as the rest of the world increasingly considers our open spaces as part of a foreign society, or worse, a reservation.

The challenge in front of rural and agricultural leadership is that we have been tidily divided into social tribes. It’s a function of time and technology. Mechanization on the farm was followed by migration to urban centers. Repeat that cycle for three generations or so. There are few farmers, and fewer who have time or desire to become leaders among themselves and to the outside world. But it is a critical task.

Watching the contention over Amendment 1, Missouri’s right-to-farm language, our fractured tribes became clear. Passage of the amendment was too close. I had predicted it would go the other way, but regardless of the outcome, I knew one side or the other would celebrate. As the recount was mounted, I waited for that celebration mindful of an old speech from Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic leader who helped take his people from a totalitarian state to freedom. As he accepted the Open Society Prize in Budapest, 1999, Havel reminded the audience that the Czech national team had recently won the world ice hockey championship. Czech hockey fans had hit the streets in celebration. And watching them, Havel was ill at ease. To explain why to the audience, he asked some penetrating questions:

“Aren’t such massive celebrations simply an expression of an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for the world, and of a need to dissolve instead in the collectivity of a pack with its collective pride and collective irresponsibility? Isn’t this merely an outburst of a darkly archetypal love of our own tribe, which appears to us to be the best of all simply because this is the tribe we belong to, without having to do anything for this affiliation? Where is the line between civic solidarity and tribal passion? Where is the limit beyond which spontaneous rejoicing in a remarkable success of our fellow citizens and a thoroughly respectable experience of a sporting activity turn into a theft of somebody else’s performance by a crowd lacking ideas of their own and shrinking from personal responsibility?”

Read that mindfully and consider your own tribe. What responsibility do you have to agriculture? Do you earn your affiliation. Farming, family farming, all of farming needs leadership. Of course, many of you already give as much as you can to your community in leadership and time. We should encourage it among others. No role is too small. Grass roots steer society.

To that end, on page 14 of this issue, Nancy Jorgensen covers a few programs that strive to promote rural and agricultural leadership.

Havel came from a darker time and place, but evolutions do sometimes spin the wrong way. In parting, here is one more question from his speech.

“How can we recognize when people are still freely sorting and absorbing all that makes up their world, and when they begin to resign their freedom to simply go along with their dark passions and prejudices; to follow simplifying, but impressive, ideological paradigms; to dully yield to the seductive lures of demagogues and populists?”

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