Sunday, August 7, 2016

Farmers and Scientists Are People, Too

Last month was the spouse's 20th high school reunion in his home town of Plainview, Texas. I'd been to Plainview a few times to visit his family and friends, but never over the summer. He had always said that I wouldn't enjoy the heat, so we had always visited in December.

So it was my first time visiting the state in temperatures above 100ºF (for all you awesome metric people, that's about 40ºC). It was also my first time at a reunion. Before flying out, the spouse encouraged me a few times to try to organize interviews for my "Better Know a Farmer" series, however, it was not possible given the duration of my trip.

Needless to say, Plainview, Texas is very different from any place I've lived. There used to be a very large meat processing plant for Cargill, which shut down in recent years due to the difficulty of maintaining cattle in the increasingly dry climate. Currently, one of the largest employers is a Walmart distribution center. But agriculture is at the heart of the area: the ads in the airport were for field irrigation systems and for agricultural technologies. The dust bowl is more than just a chapter in history books.

View from our plane when landing in Lubbock, TX
I got to chat with people between the various events for the reunion. Many them held jobs associated with ag, ranging from farmers working the land to individuals repairing equipment on ranches. They shared their challenges and aspirations. They spoke about biotech crops and how these have helped them. They told me about the drought, how it has impacted them and what they've lost. It made me think a lot about how stress resistant crops could help such regions in the not-too-distant future, and how such crops will become increasingly more important.

To most of us, farming is a concept in a text book. It's the lyrics to Jason Aldean's "Amarillo Sky". But to the people I met, it's their livelihood and it's their day-to-day. It's a source of pride and a legacy that has been handed down to them and they hope to pass on to their children.

I was recently reminded of Mommy, PhD's "#ScientistsArePeople" campaign, which launched to highlight that we scientists are diverse, everyday people: we aren't drones intent on taking over the world, motivated exclusively by money. Sweeping statements that paint scientists as a uniform group of evil individuals couldn't be farther from the truth. Similarly, painting farmers as a group of individuals who are intent on poisoning the earth and dousing crops in pesticides couldn't be more inaccurate.

I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone follows the rules or that everything is rainbows and unicorns. I've worked with people that have been genuine douchebags and whose car tires I dreamed of slashing. But such individuals are far from being the majority. Most people I have worked with want a job where they can make a contribution to society and earn fair pay. I believe scientists and farmers are generally no different.

I want you to think carefully about your home: how you want to keep it safe, how you want to pay off your mortgage or your lease, and how you want to have a healthy environment for you and your kids/pets/friends. Would it make any sense for you to use chemicals that are not designated for household-use in this space or use more than instructed? Would it make any sense for you to introduce compounds that would knowingly damage the building you're handing down to your kids? Then why on earth would you believe that a farmer would do this to the lands where they work and live? As kids ran around at the roller-skating rink at the family event for the reunion, I wondered why anyone would believe that a farmer is any different than themselves.

There are different fora where you can engage with farmers and ask questions. I recommend Food and Farm Discussion Lab and Ask The Farmers (both are on Twitter). I encourage you to ask questions, rather than making assumptions about their practices and work.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I obtained a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Wake Forest University many years ago, and can still remember sitting at the local bar, overhearing the argument that 'scientists know how to cure cancer, they just don't want to lose their jobs, so they keep it from us.' I could never imagine the scientist who got into their branch of science just to make money, or to selfishly hoard the technology for the select few. We are all human beings with families and friends, and it is usually one of those family or friends that inspired us to make the world a better place. The irony is that the working class of the town where I went to grad school (Winston-Salem, NC) was also the home of RJ Reynolds, and there were farmers there for whom "tobacco paid [their] bills." I never thought of them as bad people, just people trying to feed their families.

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