June 4, 2013
Categories: Culture, Self
subsistence corn farmers Chiapas

Children of subsistence corn farmers in a Chiapan village where I worked.

I was an ag major in college; sustainable ag, specifically, or at least I was neive enough at age 20 to believe that a small, conservative north Texas university, whose agriculture department bragged of their environmental science emphasis, might actually cover the basics of relocalizing food systems or rebuilding eroded soil or mimicking the nutrient cycles essential to healthy ecosystems.

Too deeply invested already by the time I realized the error in my thinking, I decided to stick it out and take what I could from the experience (a diploma and good GPA at the very least).

When it came time for me to present the undergraduate equivalent of my thesis, I was fully prepared to wow them with a concise and well-rounded argument for biointensive farming methods, permaculture practices and the need to deregulate local food production and distribution. Only as soon as I’d finished, every good ol’ boy in the room looked at me as if to say, “What on God’s green earth is this hippie chick smoking?” while my professor let out a condescending chuckle, commended my enthusiasm, then confessed that while he’d never heard of such “farming practices,” he could see the argument for a backyard compost pile.

By the time I graduated, I could tell you how to properly balance nutrient ratios for fattening cattle in feedlots, how to draw the molecular structure of at least half a dozen agrochemicals and the necessary components for maximizing soybean yields, but apparently I’d have to learn composting and natural pest control outside the forty grand I was now to begin repaying for the privilege of having been educated (stay tuned for “Why I’m Cool With My 18-Year-Old Taking a Gap Year or Three”).

My college experience taught me several valuable lessons:

  1. Factory farming resembles car manufacturing more than it does my mama’s backyard garden (which planted this seed in me to begin with).

  2. Those in favor of Monsanto et al. don’t necessarily know the components of compost from concrete, God love ‘em.

  3. If radical change were possible, it would not happen from the top down, but from the ground up.

I would BE the change, dadgummit, never mind the chaw-in-cheek sarcasm of a bunch of po dunk, Roundup slingin’ boot scooters.

Diploma in hand and freshly married to a fellow visionary, we set out for Austin, the only oasis in sight within the vast food (and apparently conscientiousness) desert of Texas.

Combing the farmer’s markets and meeting all the food growers we could, we hit it off with a man who owned a cattle operation in Fredericksburg — the first certified organic ranch in Texas. He was eager to introduce chickens to his family farm, could pay a paltry salary and offered to throw in an old farm house if we didn’t mind roughing it. Did we mind? Hell, we were practically determined to rough it. On his offer like hens on a broken yolk, we became chicken farmers, of the educated variety.

That year, we survived on youthful determination, idealism and more eggs than I care to recall. We learned the backbreaking realities of farm work, the trouble with chicken tractors in a midnight rainstorm, and just how many other mammals enjoy a chicken dinner.

Fast forward through many years of fighting the system, trying our darndest to live outside the system (as if) and eventually leaving the system altogether (though not really), we wound up in Mexico, where I write from today.

Here, things look a little different. There are still family farms, and plenty of them. Local food is still accessible and unregulated making it not only possible but affordable to buy straight from local growers. But while I’d like to say we’re living beyond Monsanto’s reach, the truth is, we taste its encroachment on a daily basis. Monsanto has Mexico by the throat. Her pulse is still strong, mind you, but the grip is tightening and those squeezing are clearly anticipating a corn roast.

The encroachment of profit-before-people mega corporations on already-oppressed indigenous communities is like rubbing salt in humanity's wounds.

The encroachment of profit-before-people mega corporations on already-oppressed indigenous communities is like rubbing salt in humanity’s wounds. (The blurred photo is due to cook fire smoke filling her one-room home.)

But I’m not here to explain how devastating it would be to Mexico — to her thousands of indigenous farmers, to her 50+ native strains of corn, to the ancient wisdom she’s managed to preserve for hundreds of years, to her very cultural identity – if Monsanto is given a foothold here. I’m here to explain why, though nearly everything in me wants to rage against these monsters, I am choosing to nurture another seed planted in me from a young age: a seed of compassion.

Compassion as a tool for radical change.

Compassion as a stronger sword.

Compassion as sturdier stock.

Compassion as safer seed.

Here’s my logic:

Through the years, I’ve reacted to such injustice with all the emotions you might expect from a passionate young idealist hellbent on making a difference in the world: anger, frustration, resistance, resentment, disgust and disbelief.

And not just toward Monsanto, mind you, but toward all the big dogs in the brotherhood: the Nestles, the Coca-Colas, the Walmarts of the World. Those who knowingly, blatantly and cleverly profit thanks to and at the expense of the young, the innocent, the uneducated and the impoverished. Those reeking havoc on the planet on an unprecedented scale. Those whose strongest army are the complacent, whose greatest weapon is deception and whose presence in every corner of the earth is now more probable than clean water.

How could any thinking person NOT rage against such injustice?

But the harder I fought against the system, the more obvious it became that the one I was really battling was myself, that the more energy I put into judging them, hating them and resisting reality, the weaker I became as an individual, and that the more disempowered I felt, the less change I was actually capable of creating.

Only since I’ve learned to accept the state of the world the way it is; since I’ve changed my story, have I felt truly empowered to make a difference rather than simply swapping one negative reaction for another.

If we are to stand a chance against such superpowers as Monsanto, wouldn’t it be wise to first root ourselves in richer soil than that which is currently cultivating monocrops of madness and misunderstanding?

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers for disempowering multinational conglomerates, but I can tell you what makes me feel hopeful, and thus empowered:

  • I feel hopeful when I stop calling them monsters and start seeing them as confused individuals.
  • I feel hopeful when I quit judging this as a huge problem and instead think of it as a challenge worthy of my investment.
  • I feel hopeful when I see that Monsanto is now too big to sweep under a rug — so big, in fact, that the whole world is watching.
  • I feel hopeful when I imagine not a bunch of jack ass corporate executives snatching up one fertile swath of land after another, but mothers and fathers putting in a long day at the office working for what they believe in, however different from my own set of values.

So now, every time I come across evidence of the big dogs (gosh, they’re everywhere, aren’t they?), I have a little game I play to keep my reactions intentional. I identify the characteristics that boil my blood and then commit to manifesting their opposite:

Is it greed I dislike? Then I’ll vow to be more giving.

Is it deception I loath? Then let me speak truth in everything I do.

Is it power I fear? Then let me be humble in my daily walk.

Am I afraid they will win? Then I clearly have work to do replacing fear with love within myself.

I can also choose to tell a new story about the big dogs themselves:

Maybe they aren’t actually big at all. Maybe they are simply men and women with confused priorities who’ve been given disproportionate power by an equally confused culture.

Perhaps they don’t care what they do for a living as long as they get to tuck their children into bed at night, because no one ever did that for them.

They may believe in the pretty promises of a paycheck because they grew up impoverished and swore they’d end that family story.

It could be that they associate money-before-ethics with survival because their own formative years were void of ethical people. 

Or maybe they simply see factory farming as logical because they never had the privilege of snapping beans in the summer sunshine while their mama pulled weeds from her strawberry patch.

I realize that there’s more to it — that the solutions have everything to do with educating the masses and voting with our forks and unearthing the true motivations behind those who don’t want us to know what we’re eating — but as the pressure mounts against Monsanto on a global scale and they scramble to improve their public image (go ahead, google “monsanto” and see how they have the audacity to describe themselves) — I encourage you not only to define yourself as “pro” or “anti” GMOs, but to determine where your reactions are best rooted if a better tomorrow is our collective goal.

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49 Comments

  1. BRILLIANT!

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  2. This. This. This.
    So brilliant and spot on, Beth. Thank you for having the courage, depth and perspective to write this.

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  3. thank you for once again articulating exactly what my heart has been singing. I wish we could focus more on understanding why large corporations are successful, why we as a society want them and how they are doing the bidding of the ‘collective’. We can change our own actions, decisiions and how we walk through the world. By villifying Monsanto, we are allowing all the little decisions, misunderstanding and misinformation to continue. It’s so easy to demonize, so hard to try and understand and change. You’re the bomb Beth Berry-don’t let anyone tell you different!

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  4. I love your writing. You are eloquent, spot on, and full of wisdom. I’m so glad I found you.

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  5. Kiva Celeste

    I think there is a typo in this sentence:
    I can also chose to tell a new story about the big dogs themselves:
    It should be “choose” :)

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  6. Beth, I so enjoy your posts. What a great reminder of Pema Chodron’s, “who would I be without my story?”

    Thank you.

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  7. I’m curious if you’ve ever heard of a hydroponic cultivation process. If so, what are your thoughts about it?

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  8. Dottie Wagner

    Bravo!! Eloquent and brilliant! Thank you!!

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  9. This is so hard. My blood boils as I read this and makes me fervently support 2nd Amendment Rights – to protect us from the government and the corporatocracy. All I could think of was the US needs to do what Hungary is doing – burn those acres baby, burn the GM crops down! They can’t reproduce anyway, or require a lot more precious water than native crops. It should take less than a generation to make the GMO’s extinct. But, our society is so dependent on Monsanto and their patented products now with 80% of corn and 90+% soybeans being GMO. The world (and mostly the poor world) would starve in an immediate and short transition. It must be done consciously – but we must move away from GMO’s and corporate control of our ability to produce food. This is a bigger issue than many American’s can even wrap their attention around; yet, many other countries are at least requiring labeling so the consumer can make a choice (if they want to chose non-GMO food).

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  10. Thank you so much. This needs to go viral, quickly. What you’re pointing out is the point so, so, so, so many people are missing…and could be the difference between real, slow changes and burning out faster than you can say “Archer Daniels Midland.” If I had to be on the Titanic, I think I would’ve wanted to be playing violin, anyway.

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  11. Your blog is super inspiring, mainly because you are so nonjudgmental. I forwarded what you wrote about your kids school to my girlfriends. You are right about these big companies. They are mostly made up of people trying to do the best they can for their families. It does not make the company tactics right but I am sure it is messaged to the employees very differently. I know, I work for a huge company. When you are afraid of living without your job, it takes very little convincing that what you are doing is helping someone.

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  12. Your writings reminded me of this:

    Mother Teresa said: I will never attend an anti-war rally; if you have a peace rally, invite me.
    I am learning that if you focus on what you want, (peace) instead of what you don’t want, (war) you will receive it in abundance!

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  13. What historical figures, who advocate reform, do you most identify with?

    I’m seeing a little Ghandi and Martin Luther – a little peace, a little fight…?

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  14. It brings me back to my own recent epiphany. We, in our North American society (I’m Canadian)are so used to being looked after, big stores full of food, the expectation that they will supply the goods, that we are definitely being “taken care of”. Just not in a way that is sustainable, healthy etc. We need to find ways to start looking after ourselves, gardens on the balcony, or instead of the front lawn, community sharing and trading, my eggs for your babysitting…. I don’t mean we all suddenly attempt to be 1970′s back to the landers, just look for small things in everyday that bring back our personal control of our lives.

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  15. This is, sincerely, one of the most beautiful pieces of work I’ve read in quite some time. So sincere, honest and centered on what connects us all – compassion and empathy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  16. Mil gracias for this very well written piece. A new perspective and excellent words to live by.

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  17. Amen sister!
    Thank you for reminding me that what I am doing (small goat dairy farm working on getting licensed for cheese production) is important and valuable. I was starting to despair as we wade through the endless red tape.

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  18. Truly inspiring! I actually cried when I got to your decision to manifest the opposite. If we all chose this reaction the world would be a much better place. Thank you for your enlightenment.

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  19. Being one of your older readers and an activist since high school (in the 60′s), I can tell you you arrived at the same conclusion I arrived at much later in life. I spent way to much precious time fuming over what I wanted to change and how ineffective it all seemed. While it still creeps in my mind how Monsanto keeps buying patents for all our ancient heirloom seeds I work very hard to keep that negative thought process down. I do believe in the importance of learning facts in order to know what you want to change but these same facts should not be something that makes your lives miserable. That is the job we have, to train our mind to still be joyful among all these negative actives. My solution is to concentrate on small things that make a difference in everyday life and spread kindness. Actions definitely speak louder than words. I least you will know you have done your best to touch the lives of those around you and will hopefully plant the seed to spread goodness.

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  20. I fundamentally agree with you on all but one point. While the employees of these companies may well be as you describe, the ones at the top I feel are of a different breed. The documentary I am Fishead (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSDIT55KeKc) explains it. But the message, interestingly, is still the same as yours. Though they may be psychopaths, and intent on destruction for the sheer hell of it, our best approach is to react with the qualities we ascribe value to – love, kindness, humanity, understanding, compassion. This is the only way to defeat them! Anger, war, bitterness, fear, hate – all serve to recreate more of the same …

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  21. Love how you turn full circle using compassion instead of anger. A beautiful, beautiful reminder for all of us when we get judgy.

    I believe this energy, this thinking, this tenderness sends a ripple effect of healing and far outweighs any legislation, settlement, protest or otherwise war (although as long as they are in “our favor”, I’ll take them – kidding!).

    Thank you. I just found your blog and look forward to reading more.

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  22. Maitland Kalton

    Dear Beth, you are a breath of fresh air! Thank you for this beautifully eloquent piece. Your college education was most certainly not a waste (nothing is wasted in God’s/nature’s universe) and will no doubt put you in a more authoritative position in your committed stand for its opposite. I hope you also utilise your obvious talent for writing to spread the word in ways that feel right for you (the inner guidance system for all things in life).

    I myself am a writer about the journey to attain higher consciousness (my 1st book is soon to hit the world with a bang!) and I have an incidental passion for growing foods. I shall be building retreat centres and one important facet of these is the production of our own organic foods using permaculture techniques, especially forest gardening which is like a dream come true. As a teenager I loved watch the British TV comedy (The Good Life) about a man and his wife who give up mainstream life to provide their own food etc and dreamed that one day I could be self-sufficient. Alas, my path is as a writer and speaker and so I have to do this vicariously by having centres that do it for me using the most enlightened techniques available to restore healthy balance in soils and so on. I have to adapt existing know-how from UK projects to suit my new home environment in tropical southern Thailand and that i shall be doing in the hope that it becomes infectious when they also see that yields are considerably higher using such techniques.

    So, you article speaks to a very deep part of me that knows we will restore our beloved Mother Earth to her former glory and to that end I would just add that my book is going to put a bomb under this (in a good way!).

    I am going to subscribe so you can keep me posted on anything else you may write.

    Best wishes

    Maitland

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  23. Another post I need to start my day with, every day. Thanks.

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  24. You are one of my heroines!

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  25. Well said! We can survive if compassion survives…not likely otherwise.

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  26. Alexa geiger

    Amen!!!!!! I love it!!!! We have come to the same place in our family.

    Hope you are well down there(:

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  27. Wow! A friend who has been encouraging me in my beginner-blogging recommended your page to me, and I’m so glad she did! You write beautifully. But more even than that, this post made me care about something I hadnt given much thought to before, and I am so thankful :-)

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  28. I found your blog through an article you wrote at Mothering and I’m so glad I found it! You’ve summarized what my heart felt all along about all the injustices from corporations, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Thank you! Sharing this everywhere!

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  29. Beautiful and inspiring! Way to go, Beth!!

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  30. I love the things you write! Always inspirational and motivating. I haven’t a clue who Monsanto is (I’m picturing a pantomime baddy), please don’t assume your audience are all Americans who understand the cultural references cos I’m sure there are many of us foreigners scattered all around the world hanging onto your every word…
    Thank you for writing x

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  31. Wonderful, empowering writing and ideas. You might like this new book I’m reading called FOODOPOLY. It is a really powerful way of keeping calm by helping first get the facts straight. . . http://www.foodopoly.org/about/

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  32. This is probably my favorite yet, well, one of, I have so many favorites of your blogs. You are so on and brilliant. COMPASSION is key in EVERY situation, we HAVE to find it, connect into it. THANK YOU BETH!!!

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  33. This is really helpful. And I think you’re right about many of the “cogs” in the multinational corporations.

    But I still find it hard not to be upset and angry at the decision makers. Their lives are so very different than most and they are so out of touch with reality. The legacy they’ll leave is still one where we are all worse off. I can’t reconcile that with peaceful charitable thoughts and I really want to be able to…

    Just this past weekend in a Minneapolis paper it was reported that a Cargill heir paid $10 million for a house – only to tear it down for plans of a bigger home. SOOOOOOOOO out of touch.

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  34. Catching up on my reading, so late to comment. Will just say: You knocked this one out of the park, Beth.

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  35. This is good….. But please tell me how we are to Produce enough food for the world with out Companies like Monsanto? If every farm would be Organic we would not even have enough food for 25% of our country. There is to much farm land gone to the point of no return. It is people like you that gets my blood boiling we as farmers work very hard to make sure people have food….but we are the bad guys because we use GMOS.

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    • Assuming you are Farm Wife’s husband, I offer my apologies for my insensitivity. (See comment below.)

      I do not believe you, as farmers, are the bad guys. I believe the broader, top down system of commercial agriculture in the US to be unsustainable, completely out of sync with the natural order of things, unsupportive of and stacked against small farmers and asking for major trouble.

      The solutions are clearly complex, and you are right, the world is currently dependent on the food system as it stands. I am not advocating for radical and abrupt change resulting in mass starvation but increased education, transparency, a dismantling of power given to mega corporations and truly sustainable steps in a healthier direction. (GMO labeling would be a good start but is just a small piece of the puzzle).

      For me, being conscientious in the way I react to injustice as I see it is an essential step if I want to be part of “the solution.” That is what this piece was about.

      For this reason, and because I commend you and every farmer working toward the betterment of the world, I thank you for challenging me.

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  36. Gosh, I stopped reading when you implied that North American farmers are uneducated, “chaw” chewing, monsanto loving, hillbillies. Compost from concrete? Really? I’m not sure where you were educated in North Texas, but here in 2013 North Texas I don’t know a single corporate farmer. Not one. And I know a LOT of farmers. But hey, you took a stab at trumping up claims to excite your readership… and probably have few readers that know enough about the topic to contradict you. Are you sure your degree wasn’t in propaganda?

    I happen to be married to a chaw-less North Texas farmer who spends almost as many hours working the land as he does inventing new ways to improve it. Last year he got the attention of some of the old timers when he installed what many of them now affectionately refer to as the “magic pipe”. (A water ionization device.) A major part of his job requires research and thoughtfully implementing strategies that balance one another. Whether it’s hauling in chicken litter, encouraging his neighbors to do the same, or spreading locally harvested gypsum to make water more readily absorbed by the soil– My husband raises crops that provide income for a few local families, and an actual EXPORT for the U.S… and he does it at great personal sacrifice.

    He does it for the love of the land and for the craft. You speak of compassion. My husband doesn’t have time to write sharp tongued blog posts that claim authority in an area he is ignorant, nor time for pats on the back about how compassionate he is for the ‘confused individual’, but he does make time for showing actual and tangible compassion for his fellow human beings on an almost daily basis. You would do well to learn from someone like him.

    As for me? I’ll have to take your word for it when it comes to your attempts at compassion. I guess I’m just confused.

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    • I appreciate your articulate and informative response. As the wife of a hard working north Texas farmer, I can see how you found my article offensive.

      It was not at all my intention to bash North American farmers. On the contrary, I went to school to become one and was thoroughly disappointed with the educators, the curriculum and the misleading claims of sustainability I received throughout my experience.

      I was describing my college program, not north Texan farmers as a whole. I have every bit of respect for small farms and the farmers who work so hard to run (and improve) them. “You” are my heros.

      For this reason, I apologize for my insensitivity and will be more mindful in the future about generalizations such as the ones I made in order to paint a picture of my experience.

      Thank you for your honesty and please convey my gratitude to your husband for his essential and difficult work,

      Beth

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  37. Maybe the people who came up with this technology had good intentions, intentions of making more efficient agriculture to feed a growing world with less pesticide and herbicide use. Maybe some who work in this field are passionate about their science and about better ways of farming and using the land through genetic manipulation. I think of Ray Wu and his desire to make rice with added vitamin A, and I smile because I know his heart was in the right place. Perhaps guilty of hubris, but many of these technologies started with questions of how to feed the world, which is a worthwhile question to ponder. it is indeed wise to pause and think it over from the another point of view.

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  38. You could be right. Careful consideration from many angles is, indeed, worthwhile.

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  39. A remorseful and apologetic, Farm Wife

    Your grace has softened me. I am usually so diplomatic and patient, I don’t know what took hold of me. This is the time of year when my husband, Jason is working 140 hours a week and it wears on all of us. He has the most gentle spirit, is soft-spoken, and his words come out thoughtfully and slowly. I sometimes think this is mistaken by people who don’t know him, or know what he has managed to do, as ignorance. Yesterday I was searching out gentle parenting blogs to add to my feedly account and this post was linked through one of them. This is a topic that interests me so I stopped by. As I read, I became unfairly defensive of my husband and like I said in my horrid comment, did not read your entire post, or perhaps I would have been softened sooner.

    I do truly only know family farmers, from planting to marketing they do it all- you have to if you want to stay afloat these days.

    I wish my husband was here, to clarify for me something he said last summer about how he only dealt with one seed company that had anything to do with Monsanto, and Monsanto was in the process of being phased out of that company. While that isn’t much information, it does allude the fact that ordinary farmers are tuned into some of the more complex issues of their life’s labor and small changes are being made, even in the farms that cover acres instead of inches.

    I have so much more to say, but I fear I will drown out my most important message of remorse for the way I behaved yesterday, and gratefulness for your gentle response.

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    • Dear Farm Wife,

      I both appreciate your apology and your initial comment. I now see that I WAS stereotyping a group of people who I felt judged and wronged by in college.

      Funny, because had I been talking about a racial or religious group in that way (which I would never do) I’d have lost countless readers over it, yet by stereotyping “hicks,” it took someone from within the geographic region I was making fun of to even hear it for the untrue overgeneralization it was.

      Of course, there are plenty of conventional farmers (and conventional farming professors) who know concrete from compost. Of course, not all north Texan ag students spit chaw into plastic coke bottles during class. I met others who were as passionate about making a difference as I was and I did not paint an honest picture by telling a partial story for the sake of imagery.

      On another note, I actually wonder if this connection may have happened for a greater purpose (other than to open my eyes to the responsibility that comes with the privaledge of speaking my mind and heart). It has spawned an idea for a project that you might even be interested in contributing to. If so, please contact me through my contact page and I will share my idea.

      Again, thank you for reaching out and for being honest. I needed the kick in the pants.

      Best, Beth

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  40. I love this post. I love the part about vowing to be more giving in the face of greed and truthful in the face of deception. Both of my grandparents worked for Monsanto in the 1950s. I grew up thinking their jobs were amazing, especially for a female scientist in the 1950s. And after they died, and the biopsy report came back that the cancer that killed my grandma was 96% likely from her work related exposure during her time there. And my grandfather had died before they did those reports, but likely death was related as well. So I had very different reasons to feel saddened by Monsanto before I became aware of all the ways that they are harming the environment and what I eat. But do know that my grandparents 60 years ago thought that they were doing something good, and that doesn’t excuse what’s happening now. But I appreciate the way you’ve complicated our response to the company, it’s filled with people.

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  41. This is a fantastic post, and something more and more people need to read. We have to separate our hatred of a system from the people who prop up that system, particularly when those people are not the ones making the decisions at the top. We have to find a way to oppose Monsanto with 100% of our energy at the same time that we love all human beings, even Monsanto employees, with 100% of our energy.

    I linked to your article in my own article on a similar topic and hopefully more people will read what you wrote. Thank you for being inspiring and keep up the great work.

    Andy

    http://andrewhanauer.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/defining-a-politics-of-love/

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  42. Brava! I, too,have come to this thinking, as well. I see corporations as a collection of individuals. As the consciousness of these individuals rises, the Quality of the organization rises and then, so will their policies, practices, products and procedures change into ones that reflect Oneness rather than separation.

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  43. Excellent piece! Thank you for sharing your well thought out insights and process.

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