First published in Franklin Journal
It’s a gloriously sunny morning. The birds are singing. I’m drinking my coffee, while gazing out the window at the bird-feeder visitors. I am not delighted to see a sparrow-sized mouse under the feeder. I’m sure there’ll be a conversation about that tonight. In the meantime, I ponder on the birds and the errant, tiny, red squirrel who is no longer phased by my shooing. Spring heralds a plethora of birds – sparrows (cue rendition of “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow”), cardinals, blue jays, crows, starlings, chickadees, and a few other varieties. Three faithful mourning doves show up every morning and visit throughout the day. This morning a tiny yellow bird is visiting and feeding singularly. I snag the binoculars to get a closer look and confirm my eyesight has not deceived me. Sadly, my new friend is only here for a moment, but that moment brings a fresh “heart spark”. I know the sighting brings me a message.
I google yellow birds of Maine. The closest I can find is the yellow warbler. Native American reference tells me their light side is to bring joy. Indeed, this one did bring a moment of joy. Their shadow self is they steal from others. Well, this little one seemed to politely share with everyone. Overall, they symbolize endurance, energy and patience. They are a reminder to express ourselves and to embrace the good and the bad. Now I know the message.
This week Rick Friday, an Iowan farmer with a herd of 200 cattle was fired as a cartoonist for Farm News, a weekly publication which has a readership of approximately 24,000 households and online. He has been submitting rural life cartoons since 1995. The cartoon for which he was fired, shows two farmers chatting and leaning on a fence. One famer is saying “I wish there was more profit in farming.” The other responds, “There is. In year 2015 the CEOs of Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere combined made more than 2,129 Iowa farmers.” According to his quote in the New York Times and on his FB page, he was fired following a complaint by a “large company affiliated with one of the corporations mentioned in the cartoon”.
It is common knowledge agriculture uses inputs of seed, herbicides and pesticides and farm equipment. Mr. Friday says his cartoon was based on research. He didn’t mean to offend anyone, but bring notice to the plight of farmers who in part, rely on the stock exchange for their wages. The cartoon serves to highlight inequities in the US food economy. Related farm-food companies are making a significant profit, but this is not true for most farmers. For farmers, conventional commodity prices are low, while input costs remain high. Farmers absorb commodity price drops, end users pay the same and food processors and retailers increase margins. While I recognize Mr. Friday’s situation as an opportunity to discuss the issue of free speech and why cartoons particularly, reap a disproportionate response to the written word, I cite it today as a missed opportunity to analyze and discuss challenges farmers face in trying to make a living wage.
Besides commodity pricing and high input costs, farmers face the effect of consumers having a story book farming picture and a quest for “cheap”. Through this quest, we contribute to the dark side of farming, such as maximized margins for seeds and farm equipment and other food purveyor related inputs, while farm incomes and workers’ wages remain low.
What can consumers do to help achieve balance? May 15th to June 1st, farmworkers and their allies will march from the east side of Long Island to Albany, NY to draw attention to inequities in the food-farm industry, such as low wages which have been enabled by policies created post World War II. We can each take part in this march by signing petitions; taking up pens and paintbrushes; engaging in organized community forums and rather than judge and complain about higher prices at farmer’s markets, converse with farmers.
We can achieve pay for farmers and farm workers which reflect a real price for providing a just, sustainable agriculture and still buy food at the “right” price. We won’t get there by censoring and silencing. The yellow warbler nudges us to get there by honoring our light and dark sides and to engage in fruitful discussions about our food system with patience, energy and endurance, as well as embrace invitations for discovery, such as Mr. Friday’s cartoon.