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Only fooling themselves

Farmers and ranchers often complain they're under attack by society, or at least some powerful elements in it. The attacks often center around claims that farmers care too much about profits, too little about the environment and protecting the long-term health of their communities and fields.

Some farmers, when they hear such claims, glare indignantly and say, "Of course we care. Nobody cares more."

I think of that nobody-cares-more defense now, after the response to my last column. Here's the short version of what I wrote in it: Farmers say they care about the environment and soil health. The regional drought will test whether they're sincere or just paying lip service for PR purposes; my best guess is that most farmers really mean it, albeit to varying degrees.

The column generated a fair amount of emails, traditional letters and phone calls from farmers who argued otherwise. They insisted that most farmers almost always do what generates the most money, not what's best for their fields and communities.

Said one caller, "They talk about how much they care about the land. But what they really care about is making money."

No, it's not only the general public that criticizes farmers. There are aggies who do it, too.

The reality is that farmers face both economic and environmental considerations. Many farmers, wisely, emphasize that in their public comments. They don't glare indignantly and say, "Nobody cares more." Instead, they say, "Yes, we care about the land and the environment. But we have a bottom line, too, and we have to stay in business."

Here's an example, a common one, of how farmers are affected:

The corn-soybean rotation is dominant in parts of Agweek Country. Adding a third crop, a cereal grain, to the rotation would be the right thing to do agronomically. But the cereal grain most likely would lose money, and farmers — who would prefer to grow it — reluctantly decide not to.

They're not bad guys or villains because they don't. They're real-world business people making what they judge to be the necessary and prudent (though unfortunate) decision. That's a crucial element that too often isn't getting through to the public.

To an extent, that's because some farmers prefer to glare indignantly and insist, "Nobody cares more," instead of making a sincere effort to educate. When they choose the former, they're only fooling themselves.

But I think the general public, or at least the majority of it, will believe the truth. So skip the indignant glare and "nobody cares more" comment and tell things the way they really are:

We care about soil health, our communities and the environment. But we also care about paying our bills, supporting our families and employees and staying in business. We're trying hard to achieve both. It's not easy, and we're not perfect. But we're trying.

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