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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

It's your land, but ... public perception matters

Cargill is one of the world's most powerful agricultural companies. There's disagreement, both in and out of ag circles, on whether it uses that power constructively. But everybody, in and out of ag, agrees that Cargill is extremely smart and savvy.

So when the company's retired president and CEO says something, I listen carefully — especially when it reinforces what I already believe.

A few weeks ago, Greg Page, who retired from Cargill in 2015, spoke at a Grand Forks, N.D., farm show. He said, among other things, that agriculture needs to connect better with people outside ag.

That's hardly controversial. It's as obvious and common-sensical as bundling up to go outside in the winter and making sure our car tires are inflated properly.

But making that connection won't be easy, Page said, calling it "a wicked problem."

In trying to resolve the problem, he said, it's necessary to avoid two extremes: on one end, planting all cropland to perennials; on the other, farmers insisting, "It's my land and I can do whatever I darn well please with it."

Neither extreme is realistic, neither would provide a workable solution, Page said.

I'm not knowledgeable about ardent environmentalists. But I suppose there are some people, a few anyway, who support planting nothing but perennials. Decide for yourself whether doing so would produce enough food to feed the world's fast-growing population. But I'm confident in saying that the overwhelming majority of mainstream aggies will join me in saying, no, obviously not, not even close.

Now the other extreme: farmers who insist it's their land and they can do whatever they want with it. They definitely exist; I know that from personal experience.

A year ago, another speaker at an area farm show — an experienced, dedicated aggie — advised farmers to consider the public relations downside of removing shelterbelts in high-visibility areas. A lot of people like trees, he said, and they get upset when shelterbelts are cut down. His advice to farmers in that situation: Replace the trees or take some other action to show the public that you care about the environment.

I wrote a column relaying and endorsing that advice. (The column stressed my farm background and the importance I put on property rights.)

After the column ran, I received quite a bit of feedback. Most of it agreed that, yes, public perception is too important to ignore.

But I also received several phone calls from angry farmers who told me in no uncertain terms, "It's my land, and I can do whatever I darn well do whatever I want it." Except they used stronger, more colorful words than "darn."

I responded politely that doing whatever they want angers the public and leads to regulations and legislation that will hurt themselves and ag in general. They told me, again in no uncertain terms and in colorful language, that I'm an idiot and should mind my own business.

Well, maybe I'm an idiot. But Greg Page assuredly is not. And as he said at the farm show, agriculture risks unpleasant regulations and legislation if it doesn't voluntarily address public concerns.

Other farmers at risk, too

Yes, it's your land. I can't stop you from doing whatever you want with it.

But when what you're doing angers and alienates too much of society, you guarantee a reaction from people who can stop you.

And when that happens, you hurt all of agriculture.

Don't mess up things for the rest of us.