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The Soul of Food vs. the Judgment of Food Souls

February 4th, 2015 by Michele Payn-Knoper

We live in an era of food judgment...feed your baby organic baby food if you want to be a “good” mother, buy local if you’re a “true” foodie and only invite friends to the trendiest restaurants where you can philosophize over food origins. Large is bad, small is good – in food portions, farm size, business and waistlines. Technology in food production is frowned upon. And anyone with a vested interest in the agrifood system is surely so biased that they can’t be trusted.

Frankly, it’s tiring. Food is food. You eat and so do I. What one family consumes does not make them superior or inferior. The same is true in farming; the way one family farms does not make them worthy of accolades or condemnation. It’s about choice. And like many things in life, not everyone makes the same choices.

Knowledge food soul platoIt seems we have moved beyond mere concern about our food to judging the soul of food – and those who consume it. What is the soul of food? For me, the soul of food has everything to do with beautiful black and white Holsteins gracing my front yard and neighborhood. The soul of food is about the people who painstakingly care for the land and animals so that you can eat. The soul of food is about the memories made around my dining room table with my family and friends.

Food perspective varies based upon position around the proverbial plate. Scientists look to facts, such as the case when Dr. Kevin Folta, University of Florida Department of Horticulture chairperson, “desconstructed” Food Babe’s response to a student association.  Chefs look at the soul of food as how it’s going to add flavor to their creation. Economists look at data, such as Oklahoma State’s food economist Dr. Jayson Lusk did when he conducted a survey finding “over 80 percent of Americans support ‘mandatory labels on foods containing DNA’.” (pssst…all food has DNA).

Iowa farmer and certified speaking professional Jolene Brown sums it up nicely “All types and sizes of agriculture are needed to feed and clothe our families and the world – small, local, organic, conventional and commercial. I want us to be careful not to be selfish with a personal view of food production for there is a higher calling beyond our personal wants and wishes.”

In other words, don’t let “judgment on food soul” trump realism in the “soul of food.”  Your choices are likely different than mine. A single mom trying to make ends meet has different wants than a Whole Foods follower. A dietitian concerned with a balanced diet has different food priorities than a middle aged man looking for comfort food. I don’t believe any of those people have a more superior food soul. A Super Bowl ad does not make the soul of food, a celebrity sensationalizing food claims does not make the soul of food, the words on a label does not make the soul of food, nor does a diet fad. All are what I call food soul judgements.

In reality, the soul of food today is largely the same as it was fifty years ago. Food is, in fact, safer – but I recognize facts don’t create the perceived soul of food. If you have a romanticized view of small family farms with crops raised by hand and animals lovingly running free while eating green grass, do some real research with those that were there sweating it out with animals in mud, pulling weeds from crops and trying to eek a living out of the land.

We’ve allowed judgment of individual food souls dictate the soul of food over the last decade.  The soul of my food is no different than the soul of your food. Nor is the soul of our food worse than it was 50 years ago. What matters is how food takes care of a family.

Explaining 4-H: pretty ribbons, life lessons & bovine bullies

July 18th, 2014 by Michele Payn-Knoper

Trophies and purple ribbons are pretty. They also collect dust. Standing in a championship class  is an awesome feeling. But you learn more from standing at the bottom and earning the right to be first. Blue ribbons awarded to a child who sits nervously with a judge build self-esteem. Yet the real lessons have nothing to do with the color of the ribbon; it’s about remembering the pride of work created through the project preparation. I’ve watched my daughter experience this all week as her non-livestock exhibits were judged – and explained she’ll soon forget the color of her ribbons, but she’ll always carry the lessons in her heart from the fair.  4-H cake decorating patriotic star

4-H fair season evokes memories of carnivals, cotton candy and cute kids for many visitors. It’s representative of a simpler time, where families went to create memories before YouTube, Disney and iPads. I know because going to fairs was the only vacation my dairy-farming family ever took when I was growing up.  I also spend countless hours watching visitors at the county and state fair to study how they react and encourage 4-Hers to answer a visitor’s unasked question. Little do most of those visitors know what goes into spent in getting the kids, animals, and projects ready for a fair.

It’s even more difficult to see the life lessons at work behind the scenes. The cake decorating exhibit doesn’t list “at least 20 hours of practice, unending patience and serious use of meringue required” – nor does the foods display say “recipe development, food chemistry, nutrition and 6 a.m. baking learned here.” The poise, polish and presence on stage is a bit more obvious in fashion revue, but the sewing project needs a poster showing “perseverance, desire and a sense of style needed” – not to mention an extraordinarily patient teacher (which I am not and am thankful to a talented seamstress friend who has given my daughter a lifelong gift).

Nowhere on the fairgrounds is there a sign reading “it takes a community to build a 4-Her” but as I watch generations reach out to embrace more 4-Hers, volunteers spend hundreds of hours teaching and leaders carefully organize an experience that can benefit children from all walks – I am so proud of our Boone County 4-H family.  4-H is unquestionably a family affair – and fair weeks build memories that bond families. After all, where else do you have the opportunity to fight with your child about the silliest details, bleach white clothes in a moment’s notice and pick straw/animal hair out of every article of clothing?  On a more serious note, 4-H families are built by the parents willing to drive their child 45 minutes multiple times a week to lease a cow, a father who spends an afternoon helping his child build a display, or a mother in the kitchen endlessly helping a child learn the craft of baking.

4-H dairy fititngThe highlight of my family’s 4-H experience centers on our beloved registered Holsteins and helping with our county’s dairy project. July is pretty much filled with cow hair, manure and clippers. As you may have followed last year, my daughter purchased her first heifer and is more than a little proud of her – to the point that the heifer has been on a diet for the last month because she was quite fat. The beloved heifer “Ving” is now a big spring yearling, spoiled by being regularly dressed up by little girls and loves to try to bully anyone she can, including grown men. Yet there is a certain little girl who has worked with the heifer non-stop and the pair make quite a sight. 4-H dairy fitting

I have watched 90 pounds of tough girl learn to coax a very stubborn 800 pounds through brilliant animal handling and then turn around and stomp off, screaming in frustration when Ving got away. I have watched my daughter learn about genetics and calving ease through selecting sexed semen to breed her next generation. I have listened to her have complete conversations with her heifer while on the washrack and sing as she continues to learn the “art of the blend” while clipping the perfect dairy hairstyle. I have seen her confidence grow as she realizes she has all the skills (and biceps) she needs to show with style. It’s been an honor and privilege to be in the front row to witness the life lessons taught by 4-H dairy cattle – alongside the many wonderful people who have surrounded her in that teaching. She shows next week and I’m so excited for her (and all of the kids in our dairy project); I’ll  be the one in the background praying for no bovine bullying while trying to hide my tears of joy and pride.4-H Dairy

Explaining the lifelong benefits of 4-H to people who have never experienced it firsthand is nearly impossible. Yes, the paperwork is grueling, the hours are countless, kids whine, parents grumble and black belt time management skills are required.  But nothing can replace the pride in a 4-Her’s face on a job well done, watching them learn the importance of helping others and seeing young people find their passion in life. How can you be sure that’s happening for the youth in your life? There’s no better place than the fair!

National Geographic to farmers & agribusiness: be open to the public, listen more and tell your story

April 28th, 2014 by Michele Payn-Knoper

“The Year of Food” recently launched at Dennis Dimick is the Executive Editor, Environment for National Geographic magazine and grew up on a farm in Oregon. MPK had the chance to meet him this winter, listen to his preview of  “The Year of Food”, and ask Dennis a few questions. You can also find the beauty of Dennis’ photographic work on Flickr or Instagram or connect with him on Twitter. This is the second of two posts with his insights.


What is the greatest disconnect between farm and food?

We are an urban society now, there is little or no understanding of farming and farmers, what they do, how they live, and the huge risks they take. Now by design geographically, farms are often physically far separated from where people live, essentially worlds apart.

Do city people, for example, realize the huge multi-year and –decade investments farmers must make in equipment and land, or the upfront costs they must cover for seeds and fuel and fertilizer before they get a penny from harvest? Further, the prices farmers pay for their inputs and eventually get for their harvest are always set by others, not to mention farmers are always at the mercy of unpredictable weather.

national geographic farm food world agriculture, michele payn-knoper, feed the world, population growth

Credit: National Geographic


What practices have you seen farmers using to take better care of the environment?

Well, of course I have seen conservation tillage, strip cropping, cereal/legume crop rotation, contour cropping, and rotational grazing. I have seen farmers with methane digesters produce biogenic methane from on farm manure. It’s important for the public to understand that farmers by definition must be stewards of their land, for if they erode and abuse their soil and water in the quest for highest yield, or short term profit, they will soon be out of business because the soil they need will be worn out or eroded away.

But that said, we still have a serious soil erosion problem in the country. We have significant and chronic “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay and off the Mississippi Delta (among other places) as the result of excess nutrient runoff. Of course not all of that impact can be assigned to agricultural practices, but to deny this exists, to blame others, or to say this is an acceptable price to pay for “productivity” is short-sighted. The Green Lands, Blue Waters initiative in the upper Mississippi Basin is an example of improved land use practices specifically designed to reduce runoff pollution from farm landscapes.

If the nation truly values soil and water quality, then perhaps agricultural policy needs to reflect and incentivize that, so farmers don’t feel they are at a financial disadvantage when taking marginal and erodible lands out of production, or putting lands into conservation reserve.


You grew up on a farm. How do you see agriculture changing over the same number of years since you threw hay bales?

Cities have overtaken some of our best farmland. (Our own farm was taken over by an Interstate highway.) Farms have gotten bigger, farmers have gotten fewer, farmers have gotten older, farms have become less diversified and more specialized. Fewer young people are going into farming. Farm towns have disappeared, schools have closed, rural American landscapes have become depopulated.


What are three ways North American farmers could better tell their story?

Farmers could benefit by being more willing to be open to the public and the press. Passing laws that restrict and outlaw photography of farming operations only serves to further alienate agriculture from the people whose support they need: the people who eat. It’s probably as important today for farmers to tell their own story, willingly, as it is for them to grow their own crops or livestock. If farmers have something to hide then maybe they need to clean up their practices. Being proactive, open, and receptive to a curious public can go a long ways towards improving relations.

National Geographic, Feed the World, Population growth, jonathan foley, agricluture, farming, farmers, michele payn-knoper

Credit: National Geographic

Companies that produce seeds and crop technology would benefit by listening more, and not just assuming products will be accepted by the public. Just because a seed technology benefits the profit sheet doesn’t mean the public will accept it.

Farmers would do well to do a better job of not just marketing their products but marketing themselves, telling their own story. This could be on-farm tour days, or open house picnic type affairs. It could mean (ongoing) bringing in school tours, being willing to show the public what they do and how they do it. Maybe it means being willing to diversify a bit so that some of what you do is specifically designed as a way to connect with the public through farm market sales, or specific brand identity. Some will say I can’t afford to do that, I’d say you can’t afford not to open up and become a self-advocate.



The Year of Food: an inside look from National Geographic

April 16th, 2014 by Michele Payn-Knoper

Dennis Dimick

“The Year of Food” recently launched at Dennis Dimick is the Executive Editor, Environment for National Geographic magazine and grew up on a farm in Oregon. MPK had the chance to meet him this winter, listen to his preview of  “The Year of Food”, and ask Dennis a few questions. You can also find the beauty of Dennis’ photographic work on Flickr or Instagram or connect with him on Twitter. This is the first of two posts with his insights.

What do you hope the Year of Food will accomplish in National Geographic?

Our hope is that this will help inoculate a conversation and a better understanding in the general public about where food comes from, the people who devote their lives to growing it, and the scale and complexity of making all that happen. We are trying to begin bridging a gap between agriculture and an increasingly urban public. In the U.S. at least, we used to be more closely linked to the land. Either we grew up on a farm, or had a relative who farmed. Not so now. We have lost the actual connection to the land and people who grow our food. Food comes from stores, not farms. If nothing else with this project we are trying to explain, to help make connections between people who grow food and people who eat food, to improve understanding, and begin to build common ground.

Can you describe the power of images the role they play in connecting food and farm?

Well, if we can’t take everyone to the farm, we can bring the farm, and farmer to everyone. Pictures have the power of making emotional connections, making people go “Wow, I had no idea.” Pictures have the power to show in ways that words never can, for example breadth, scale, and beauty.

farm food

Credit: National Geographic

In a country where 40% of the population doesn’t believe that it’s America’s job to feed the world, how to do we communicate the value of productivity?

Maybe it’s not our job to feed the world. Maybe it’s our job now to help create productive capacity so others can become more self-reliant. Maybe we also need to make sure first that the people in our own country are able to get good, healthy food. If we have more than 45 million in our own country reliant on food assistance there is work to do right here. This is not just a challenge for agriculture, but for policy makers. Why are there so many poor in America, unable to get the healthy food they need? Obviously it’s a complex issue, and providing opportunity and security goes hand in hand with access to affordable food. Just because it’s a complex issue doesn’t mean we can’t try to improve the situation.

Once we have taken care of our own house then we can talk about feeding others. But it’s not really about just growing commodity crops and putting them on ships. The power and the need now is creating capacity for others to be self-reliant to grow their own food, to help create for others what our own land grant university and extension service system did for America over the past century: Create a system of rural education and dissemination of best practices to improve farm success and productivity.

How can agriculture reach mainstream media?

Well, for starters, saying yes when media call wanting information, or wanting to come visit and see how the operation works. I’d say that agriculture could benefit by helping university schools of journalism and agriculture sponsor agriculture and food focused journalism workshops, institutes, and endowed chairs. This is not just about agriculture now it is about the story of agriculture. And like soil-building, this work will take a while.

In 2008, we published a story on soil conservation, and it took me nine years from my original proposal to see it publish. Same thing applies here. This is a long-term challenge, and good things, like children, take time to create. This type of educational system to improve science journalism has helped the quality of the journalism done about science. Agriculture could benefit from the same sort of long-term investment to create a new generation of journalists and communicators who understand agriculture, not just journalism.

And finally, the opportunity exists now, with the internet, for farmers to begin to tell their own story, through blogs, social media presence, brand marketing, niche branding, and name recognition. People want to know who grows their food, and how it is grown. Nationally one benefit might be to rename the USDA to the US Department of Food and Agriculture. They are inseparable.


Food with a conscience: humane care and animal welfare

March 18th, 2014 by Michele Payn-Knoper

dairy farmers care

Peppermint always held a special place in our hearts; she was born at Christmas time with fuzzy hair and looking for attention. My daughter adores Peppermint’s sassy demeanor, especially after she was a made an honorable mention junior champion at our county fair with my daughter proudly at the halter. Peppermint  has always been careful with the kids who came to visit; last summer, she laid in the pasture and chewed her cud as five kiddos sat on her back. Needless to say, she was spoiled – especially as one of the last two descendants of a cow family I bought when I was 12 years old.  Read More »

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