Theory and Practice

Is there an inherent asymmetry in the AFA model? While there are other parties involved, in many discussions the poles tend to be defined by agricultural producers on one side, and activists or advocates on the other. Farmers tend to explain how things are today, and the advocates counter with arguments that they have gleaned from numerous advocacy groups that are aligned with their cause.  Over time, there seems to be a drift toward accepting the more intellectually supported position as a desired future state, such as an organic local food system. Are we finding the truth about the future? Or are we getting skewed outcomes from a lopsided conversation?


Agriculture is not always well-prepared to deal with this conversation. This is not because farmer’s lack the intellectual horsepower to do so, but because the growers who typically participate are by necessity focused on the here and now. Practice trumps theory in the day-to-day world of farm life, and we are a profession that selects for and reinforces pragmatic behavior. Those successful in the field are exceptionally practical.


The advocacy world however, operates on a different principal. Creative, theoretical thinking is prized, whereas a focus on near-term obstacles is considered poor form. “You don’t solve a problem, with the same thinking that created it” is a common axiom in the advocacy community. There is a hunger for the next big idea, the radical social innovation which will solve mankind’s endemic problems once-and-for-all.


The problem then is that one side of the debate is grounded in the practical, while the other is based in the theoretical. I don’t claim that there are no practical arguments to be made for organic agriculture, there certainly are. Similarly, there are intellectual or philosophical reasons to support conventional agriculture. The difficulty is in getting both the practical AND theoretical addressed on all sides of an issue. Would we see a different conversation in the parallel universe where practicing organic farmers were meeting with theoretical free market economists?


The challenge is for the respective participants to try to broaden their cases. As farmers, we need to go beyond “how it is”, and make the case for the long-term. We need to present an argument that says that conventional agriculture is not just acceptable, it is right. This assumes of course, that we believe it is, but I submit that the vast majority of farmers do. An equal challenge applies to the advocacy community. Demonstrate that the theories that sound so good in ivory towers, and the models that appear to work on tiny farms with wealthy foodie clients can scale to the point where they can feed the world. These are the challenges that all of us in AFA face.

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