We in agriculture need to confront a painful fact. A noble goal, which many of us have pursued for years, decades and in some cases generations, has for the most part failed. Who among us has not attended an ag-industry meeting over the years and either said, or at least heard, a plea for “agriculture to speak with one voice,” rather than fragment into divisive segments in the face of one challenge or another?

Has that unified voice taken shape? Has it been heard? No. And in many cases — too many cases — the statesmen and stateswomen among agriculture’s best thinkers have given up the struggle. Whether it is commodity vs. commodity; “conventional” vs. organic; large-scale vs. small family farm, or a half-dozen other divisions that often represent dug-in positions rather than starting points, we are, much of the time … stuck.

If this were only a series of intra-mural struggles, this situation would be frustrating, but not crucial. For most of those years and decades, there was nothing truly fatal about many of our divisions. Farm Bills came and went; subsidies and marketing orders smoothed out some (but not all) other issues; nobody talked about climate change and agriculture’s role; and consumer expectations for safe food at low prices were stable, and at the far end of what we spent our hours fulfilling.

We are in a different world. The dynamics of crafting and rolling out a Farm Bill are different, to the point of sometimes maddening confusion. The vagaries of U.S. trade policy finds American agriculture in the cross-hairs. Economic sustainability in our rural communities is under unprecedented threat. And consumer interest in food continues, year on year, to not only grow, but to encompass greater demands to know how food is produced, who produces it, what methods and techniques are being used are being used, etc. etc.

And we must be honest with ourselves: for many years, the default-setting for many agricultural producers, whether in their first generation or a hundred years of family lineage on the same farm, was to feel (and sometimes say) “leave me alone: I’ll produce your food, but don’t bother me.” Being left alone is no longer an option. Every stakeholder up and down the line feels they have something to say, and an interest in, how agriculture operates. Consumers (sometimes acting as voters) increasingly feel that they have standing to be the ultimate arbiters of many facets of agricultural policy and production. As a wise friend has often said, “ignore your customers at your own peril.”

When I was Commissioner of Agriculture & Markets of New York State, and president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, we took steps toward what we hoped would be a “neutrality compromise” across the spectrum of America’s agricultural policymakers that sought not agreement, but rather an agnostic neutrality, on three of the key cleavages that threatened to fragment our agricultural sector: 1) Scale, 2) Resources, and 3) Technology. Could we discuss agricultural policy that favored neither large-scale operations or small family ones; that neither rewarded nor penalized operations based on the financial wherewithal available to them; and that did not penalize the use or forbearance of any technology widely accepted and broadly recognized as safe? Sometimes we could; sometimes the regional and other divisions made this goal an uphill climb.

These days, I can see no clearer example of the failure to achieve a “neutrality compromise” than the roiling situation in the dairy segment in the Northeast. Blame and accusation for an economic downturn focuses on big farms using new technologies, and with ample capital to run their operations. Struggling dairymen blame their dairy brethren for the perilous situation they find themselves in. All the while, downstream, consumer sentiments and tastes continue to change, and consumption of fluid milk continues to decline overall.

An era in which everybody from every vantage point feels entitled to a seat at the table at which agriculture’s future, constraints and practices and policy are decided, we need models of how agriculture can engage in productive dialogue, without blowing things up with internecine battles, but with an eye toward a satisfying outcome. An example of an effort in this regard that has been quite successful is the recent Food Animal Antibiotics Project carried out by the Farm Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust. This was a consortium of disparate interests. Farm Foundation works at shaping the future of food production as a catalyst for robust debate and fostering informed decision making. Pew Charitable Trust has worked on a number of projects, most recently quite diligently to limit antibiotic use in food animals. 

They came together, along with a group of major food companies, retailers, livestock producers, and trade and professional associations to develop a comprehensive framework for stewardship of antibiotic use in food animals. The groups worked together for two years on a dialogue to bring together stakeholders on this important issue, and to assist in rolling out new FDA regulations addressing antibiotic use on farms. This effort was made possible by the development of a level of trust through dialogue, and has positioned both food animal producers and the consuming public more favorably for the future.

This sort of engagement is not PR, is not "educating the public to see things our way," and is most certainly not "better messaging" so that we are perceived to be doing our jobs better than we actually are. Dialogue based on hard-won trust among disparate factions is difficult, but in an increasingly fragmented and challenging world, it has become an operational imperative.

Imagine if we advocated for agriculture while being neutral about scale, technology and wealth. Yes, it may require more acceptance of the harsh realities of market forces. It would most importantly, heighten the need for a new level of communication among our peers and our constituents. 

Much more is left to be done for agriculture in the engagement arena. If the payoff is a healthy and robust farm economy which allows farmers to do what they do best, and consumers who are happy with that outcome, isn’t it worth the effort?

Nathan Rudgers, currently Director of Business Development at Farm Credit East, was formerly Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets of New York State, president of NASDA, and has served for many years on the “Food Foresight” trend-anticipation program at University of California- Davis, and on the Board of Directors at Farm Foundation