Damian Mason believes the pandemic has shown where agriculture remains vulnerable.
During his appearance in Yankton last weekend, the Indiana farmer and author said packing plant shutdowns and empty store shelves as a result of COVID-19 provided a wake-up call.
“The pandemic has shown areas we need to work on,” he told the Press & Dakotan.
Besides farming, Mason has written a book, hosts a podcast and addresses 50-60 audiences nationwide annually. He spoke at last weekend’s “Agvocacy” program in Yankton, sponsored by the “Families Feeding Families” organization.
The closure of major packing plants that had become COVID hot spots disrupted the nation’s meat supply. The resulting shortage alarmed U.S. consumers, who also found it difficult get meat butchered or to buy freezers for storing the meat.
The situation gradually turned itself around, Mason said. “Our supply chain bent, but it didn’t break,” he said.
The U.S. farm economy faces a number of other financial challenges, Mason said. “Agriculture has been propped up by the federal government for $37 billion this year, which is a record,” he said.
The food chain disruptions showed the importance of maintaining a strong ag economy, Mason said. However, others saw it as a need to break up large ag-related operations, he added.
“We had those who said, ‘That’s what’s wrong with our food supply! We’re depending on these large corporations. How do we get away from it?’” he said.
The situation raised new calls for legislation breaking up the four large packing companies, Mason said. However, the move historically hasn’t made a difference in the long run, he said.
“Every time the federal government has broken up ‘big,’ it hasn’t lasted and has come back,” he said, noting the same things happened with airlines and phone companies.
Mason looked at the situation from another perspective — recognition that U.S. agriculture continues moving toward larger operations for greater efficiency. In addition, American producers need the freedom to operate, within reason, he said.
“My message is, ‘OK, you went to the grocery store (during the pandemic) and there was a panic on meat for a while. You didn’t like that,” he said. “What if we had a panic on meat and then we don’t have the production capacity because you just disallowed us from producing? You regulated me out of business.”
The U.S. needs to view a dependable food supply as a crucial part of remaining strong, Mason said. “When meat producers in China and Brazil have us over a barrel, we’re looking at this as national security and autonomy,” he said.
American producers must also find new ways to connect with consumers who are increasingly disconnected from the farm, Mason said.
“We need people to understand agriculture, to understand we’re a business, and many of our customers don’t quite get that,” he said. “If the Ford Motor Company expands and does more, we hail them. But if we do the same thing in agriculture, we’re called a factory farm or factory agriculture.”
At the same time, farmers and ranchers need to do more than increase their numbers, as other nations around the globe are doing the same thing, Mason said.
“We’re bad fighters in agriculture. We just put our head down and produce,” he said. “We need more value-added agriculture.”
Mason pointed to the major strides made in recent decades. “You have the (smartphone) that has more technological capacity than the Apollo space program 50 years ago, and we have made those amounts of advances in agriculture and food production,” he said.
But at the same time, a number of activists are seeking to block certain agricultural practices, Mason said. He called it a “conflict industry” using various tactics — from misleading names for their organization to deceptive advertising — to win support, members and funds.
“It’s driven by fear and emotion,” he said.
Those activists often blame agriculture for ills ranging from environmental and animal-rights issues to obesity and other health problems among the general public, he said. Those groups attach a negative association with farming, he added.
“To start with, we think we can appease activists,” he said. “They use tactics that are ridiculously divisive.”
As a nation, Americans spend 6.4% of their income on groceries and take for granted a cheap, plentiful food supply, he said. But at the same time, Americans spend $21 billion a year on plastic bottled water, making water more expensive than milk, he said.
He noted another trend, with 50% of the nation identifying themselves as “foodies” — people with an intense interest in food. Those consumers are willing to pay more for an “experience” with new and different foods.
In comparison, 70% of citizens in one Third World nation are food insecure and aren’t bothered by food production methods, he said.
Mason sees Americans adopting food as a cause. In the 1970s, 5% of Americans said they had no religious affiliation, while today the figure has risen to 25%, he said. In turn, opposing an agricultural method or operation has taken on religious overtones for many people, he added.
While some parts of the ag sector are growing larger, Mason sees tremendous new opportunities for small niche operations aided by online marketing. In addition, farm operations have diversified to produce other crops in response to weather, technology and consumer demand.
While U.S. producers are facing challenges elsewhere, they are also finding opposition in their backyard, Mason said. Agriculture faces more lawsuits, and landowners are expressing strong emotions about neighboring large livestock operations that are growing. The farmer may say he was there first, while the neighbor may object to plans for major expansion during more recent times.
While difficult, both sides need to understanding the other party if there is any hope to resolve the issues, Mason said.
Without the ability to expand, these operations can’t become economically viable, he said. He returned to the example of closed meat packers and the disrupted food supply chain.
“Those hogs are going somewhere. If they’re not going here, they’re going to Brazil,” he said. “Then, if we have a food shutdown of a plant, we see there isn’t going to be any meat right now. Brazil controls us and has decided it’s a really nice time to put the squeeze on us.”
Mason expressed confidence that U.S. producers will rise to whatever challenges lie ahead. “They always do a good job adapting and will continue to make changes, because that’s the way Americans are,” he said.
But he also called for a team effort between farmers/ranchers and the consumers.
“Let’s all be part of this,” he said.
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