By Matt Reese
With the dry weather this season, some people see the rain gauge half empty, while others see it half full. Unfortunately, I hardly ever get to see it at all.
The trouble began in the spring of 2011 when I took my young children with me out into the yard to pick the best spot for the rain gauge. From that point on, I would rarely get to check the rainfall amounts that had accumulated in the gauge with any accuracy. The kids were so excited when it rained that they would almost always run out and “check” the rain gauge before I could. Sometimes this check would include filling up the rain gauge with the hose or the toy watering can and sometimes they would make note of the water level and tell me later. My daughter would tell me the range was somewhere between about .2 and 4.5 inches — not especially helpful.
Last year there was so much rain that a few missed gauge measurements really did not matter much. This year, though, is a different story. Every drop of rain mattered in 2012.
To thwart the well-intentioned efforts of my little rain monitors this year, I moved the gauge from the 2011 spot we selected.
I became suspicious that my kids were up to their old tricks, however, when I walked by to see the gauge holding six inches of water on a cloudless June day. After questioning, my son confessed that he had been filling it up with water from the hose on a regular basis. I moved the gauge a couple more times and the kids quickly found it each time.
Like most of the state, we had a stretch of very dry weather. And, even when others had gotten rains in July, we had been missing them. Things were getting pretty bad. I had been watching the radar closely and even when it looked like we were getting rain, we weren’t.
Finally we caught a really nice shower while I was at the office. My wife called me and told me it was raining.
“Great,” I said. “Make sure you go check the gauge before the kids do so we have an idea how much rain we get.”
I pulled into the driveway later that afternoon and was greeted by my excited daughter holding the empty rain gauge. She was very happy it had rained and she proudly pointed out that the rain level was somewhere between .4 and 3.25 inches.
Shortly after this I got three phone calls from people asking how much rain we had gotten. They were not impressed with the level of accuracy provided by my four-year-old meteorologist. Based upon my rain gauge situation, it is impossible for me to have an accurate handle on what is really happening out there. Now, imagine if someone was checking my rain gauge as the lone source of rain information and was unaware that my children were emptying it some days and filling it up on others. A few weeks of this could have a normally sane person believing that rain fell on sunny days and not from clouds.
A similar situation is taking place with agriculture and food information through various media channels. When it comes to what the average consumer reads and watches regarding food and farm information, some things are accurate, some are close to accurate, and some information is completely wrong, but it is all presented as factual. The result of this amalgamation of often terrifying food information that is portrayed through every type of media channel is mass confusion about our food. The doubts and questions about food and its safety are reinforced repeatedly, while the more realistic and comparatively boring positive messages are lost in the fray. How are consumers supposed to know what to believe about something as vital and intimate as their food?
Some people respond to this confusion with fear, and then they respond to their fear with anger. And, really, who can blame them?
There are quite a few angry people out there, and their anger is directed at agriculture. They aren’t quite sure why and they aren’t sure specifically who they should be mad at, but boy are they mad and they want to do something about it.
One of those angry (enraged, even) people is Ellen Malloy, the lady whom I wrote about and referred to as the foul-mouthed food blogger back in April. To review, Ellen was part of an outnumbered group of food bloggers that met with farmers from the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance back in March. Ellen had heard and read all of the scary food stuff that is out there. She talked almost exclusively to people who either shared her sentiments, or at least didn’t contradict them and, over time, the routine reinforcement of her fears turned into a deep hatred for “Big Ag.”
When she actually came face-to-face with Big Ag farmers, it rocked Ellen’s world. And, then, she rocked theirs. Following this infamous meeting, Ellen poured out her hate of all things “Big Ag” in a blog.
So, I wrote a column in response to this and shared it with Ellen. Numerous other farmers reached out to her as well. After seeing this, Ellen, and fellow food blogger Grant Kessler, decided that they would embark on their own journey into unraveling the mysteries of the food system through 100 meals with experts in the field of food. Agriculture reached out to them, and they are now reaching out to agriculture as their journey continues.
In the meantime, Grant, Ellen and I have exchanged countless emails back and forth hashing out numerous aspects of the food system. I am sure they have been frustrated with me, and I have, on occasion been frustrated for them. And, I know a number of other ag-types have been communicating with them regularly as well. They are learning wonderful things in the early stages of their 100 meals project. But, even after all our emails, I was very surprised at what I read in one of Ellen’s summer blogs, just a few months after the Chicago meeting:
The subject of GMOs came up at a friend’s house over the Fourth of July dinner table. I can’t recall the whole of the conversation, it was brief and fleeting. But I do remember the last exchange:
“… there’s a ton of scientific evidence proving that GMOs are really, really bad…” a friend at the table said.
“Actually, no there isn’t, necessarily,” I commented.
And with that, my friend picked up his plate and stormed off.
Now, I get that emotion. I was there once — not too long ago. And I’d frankly find it much easier to be there now. It is, in fact, infinitely easier to just believe what you want to believe and be done with it. To storm off. To ignore the other side. To be convinced that what you think about food is immutably right and if someone doesn’t agree then, well, who even wants to eat with that person?… Know this: I am still not going to eat GMOs. I will still campaign against pesticides and antibiotics that are baked into the commodity food supply. I am confident I’ll start crying when I end up having to face an animal in confinement.
I am in no way on the fence about this stuff. But I am starting to realize that burning the fence just because I don’t like what is on the other side actually does no good.
Ultimately, we have quite a bit to learn from all of this in agriculture. Moving forward, there will inevitably be disagreements between the perspectives of those who see the rain gauge half full and those who see it half empty, and that is fine. But, those on both sides of the issue need to get better at shaping their perspectives based on reality, and not a giggling three-year-old with a hose and a full rain gauge on a sunny day.