This article is the product of listening. And the more I listen, the more I realize how very little I know.
“Some of you all don’t want peace, you just want quiet.”
Right now it is very quiet on the farm. It’s peaceful, and it’s quiet. In fact, the biggest news at the moment in the agricultural community is that World Dairy Expo just got cancelled – yet another casualty of Covid-19. The Wisconsin State Fair has been called off, and the County Fairs that define so much about rural culture are dropping like flies.
I am not disappointed, and I don’t think the farming community should be either. If ever there was a year to raise our heads, take a look around, and objectively re-evaluate the status quo, 2020 is it.
As a farmer, I oftentimes feel removed from many of the events that shape our world. Covid-19 did little to affect my day-to-day routine; much of my life is defined by the concept of staying at home, and hey – the cows still need to be fed and milked, even during a global pandemic. The murder of George Floyd is a different story. No longer do I feel removed, and no longer do I want to be. To remain silent and detached is to do nothing. Silence is complacency.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have listened. I have watched. I have studied. I have learned, or at the very least begun the process of learning. I started as simply as I could. I obtained a transcript of the eulogy given for George Floyd, and I read it. I wanted to know what the people who knew him had to say. I wanted to hear from those who represent the black community. I wanted to clear the noise of memes, attention-grabbing headlines, and outright stupidity and just listen.
As I look back over the nearly 40 years of my life, I am awestruck at the experience I have been able to carve out for myself. I grew up on a dairy farm in the American Midwest, and I have taken opportunities to travel nationally and abroad. I have lived next to the ocean, as well as in the foothills of mountains. I have borrowed capital and obtained credit to pursue my own business ventures, and not once have I been personally or professionally rejected or made to feel inadequate.
I have not always played by the rules; I was once detained at an international airport for violating certain aspects of my travel visa. I have been escorted (but never thrown) out of a few bars and nightclubs for being belligerent. I have been pulled over for speeding and I have been issued tickets, citations, and warnings for unlawful behavior. Back in my college days, I got caught with illegal paraphernalia and for underage drinking, but I was never issued more than a verbal slap on the wrist. On more than one occasion, I was politely turned away from security checkpoints when I tried to sneak my way into places I wasn’t supposed to be.
Here’s the thing – each of those individual reprimands were never anything more than an inconvenience to me. The only times in my life that I have feared for my safety or well-being have been very much self-inflicted. I have always been smiled at and politely let go; treated with respect. Despite those reprimands, no one can call me a “criminal.”
Come to think of it, the worst thing I have ever been called is a “Dumb Farmer,” which is as unthreatening as it is unoriginal.
Only recently have I begun to appreciate how unique my experience has been. I have had – and am having – conversations with people who have experienced life very differently than I. Intelligent, compassionate, articulate, and empathetic people have told me about recurrent incidences in their lives that include mothers pulling their children closer while crossing paths on the sidewalk. Purses clutched tighter; eyes glared untrustingly, doors shut suddenly, security personnel watching closely. Getting pulled over by the police for “looking suspicious.”
Generally, their mere presence makes others fearful.
Those are just the personal stories, but they underscore a generational problem – America’s treatment of blacks. It’s actually not that hard to say: America is very shitty to black people, and whites that enjoy their anonymity like me do not get it.
It starts at the most fundamental aspect of our identity. For the most part, if you are white, your ancestors immigrated to the New World under social or economic duress, but came with the notion that through hard work and determination, they could experience upward mobility. Those ancestors came here by their choice. There is even a term for it – The American Dream. My own ancestors escaped poverty when they came to the U.S. and bought property and started businesses, some of which endure to this day. I am proud of my family’s heritage. In fact, heritage like mine is celebrated.
Appreciate for a moment how different one’s position would be, if those ancestors were forced to the New World against their will, if a family’s heritage was intricately tied to (and referred to as) America’s “Original Sin.” If they came here by force and were bought and sold as property – exactly like cattle. Exactly like an agricultural commodity.
Life looks differently from that perspective.
When discussing the issues of police brutality, blatant discrimination in the rule of law, systemic racism, etc., I don’t get it. I talk to friends, I listen to their experiences, and I enjoy the subconscious privilege of being removed from it. Hearing these perspectives to me has been like interviewing a combat veteran. There is nothing in my own life that allows me to relate, and therefore I have had the privilege of being able to excuse myself.
The greatest challenge to overcoming societal discrimination is that I am not the only one who has had the privilege of being excused.
As I read through the transcript of George Floyd’s eulogy, I came across this perspective from The Reverend Al Sharpton:
“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’”
As a farmer, my eyes opened to that line in particular. For the past several years, my industry has done everything it can to throw true caretakers like me, and others, to the wayside in favor of a ruthless industrial model of “farming” that more closely resembles large-scale environmental and animal genocide than actual agriculture. Wisconsin, a state that hypocritically coos its dairy heritage on every license plate actually fired its own State Secretary of Agriculture for daring to stand up and challenge the status quo. At the US Federal level, tens of billions of dollars have been thrown at a Soviet-style hyper-consolidated corporate model of farming that has directly exposed overproduction and waste on a national scale during the recent pandemic. And, people are dying as a result of this push. The feeling of being alone, depressed, forgotten, compartmentalized, and even suicidal cuts deep within the farming community.
As a farmer, I can tell you that the greatest challenge of all has been simply getting people to care. As long as grocery stores are stocked with a greater variety of food at a lower cost, literally, no one cares.
I mention all of that not to draw attention away from the issue at hand – quite the opposite. My intention is to show solidarity. I am not the guy who stands up and shouts “All Lives Matter”, which only hijacks the movement, weakens the message, and draws attention away from the change that needs to happen.
I only mention farming, because the cancer that has defined what it is like to be black in America since America’s founding is spreading like a virus to all industries. I know that my (also traditionally sheltered) counterparts who are doctors, nurses, members of the military, as well as artists, thinkers, and locally-oriented media personnel share in the frustrations of the primal failure of the United States’ ability to represent and provide a sense of purpose and equality to those who are shunned, forgotten, and compartmentalized.
Now that people like me are beginning to get even the slightest, practically microscopic taste of what it has always been like to be black in America do we begin to pay attention, and isn’t that the greatest irony of all?
As the Reverend Al Sharpton continued, “It’s a different time. It’s a different season.”
I am not disappointed that our annual farming distractions are being canceled due to Covid-19. The chance to take a step back, raise our heads, and re-evaluate the status quo is long overdue.
What do we do now?
I grew up on a dairy farm that also raised beef steers. Let me tell you the most valuable lesson I learned from herding cattle – it only takes one.
What I mean is, as long as the collective remains on defense, you can get them to do whatever you want them to do. As long as you appear to be the one in control, cattle usually don’t turn around to challenge your authority. But, it only takes one steer to realize that he outweighs you ten-to-one. It only takes one steer to realize that he can outmaneuver a skinny little white kid. It only takes one steer to realize that all the whooping and hollering in the world is just that – grandstanding, and nothing more.
The United States is a country that is being governed by people who know exactly what they are doing. Take it from me, a “Dumb Farmer” who knows more than a little about what it takes to herd cattle – it only takes one to turn around and challenge the minority in charge.
Just imagine what the collective could achieve if all of us turned around.