An expression “…traditionally used by 19th century American settlers traveling to the West in convoys of Conestoga wagons. When faced with attack, such as by hostile Native American tribes, the travelers would rapidly form a circle out of their wagons, bringing the [vulnerable]… to the center of the circle….This tactic was popularly known as "circling up the wagons", and survives into the modern day as an idiom describing a person or group preparing to defend themselves from attack or criticism.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laager

I was especially drawn to the last sentence, “…and survives into the modern day as an idiom describing a person or group preparing to defend themselves from attack or criticism.”

Every week I talk to farmers who are on the defense, and many are some of the best conservation farmers I know.  When they hear leaders in the ag industry say we need to do more, these conservation farmers immediately feel the need to circle the wagons. And if it’s not a farmer, it’s someone from the ag industry who feels they too must circle the wagons to defend agriculture as a whole. I hear the following claims:

  • We are doing a much better job than we used to do.
  • Farmers are doing conservation; you ought to come see my farm.
  • America’s farmers are the original conservationists who take great pride in the stewardship of the land. Why would any farmer intentionally do something to cause soil erosion?

Eventually, after I confide in them for a while, I start to hear things in this vein:  

  • You’re right; some farmers are doing a crappy job at conservation. However, don’t lump us all together.  I am doing a great job and I am tired of getting blamed for their lack of effort.
  • You’re right; I am tired of hearing excuses from my neighbors. I know they can do a better job, because there are a lot of us doing a great job.
  • You're right; some farmers should not be allowed to farm. If we get regulated, they will be to blame. 

In every classic western movie, there was the dubious peddler who just rode along with the wagon train for protection. He had no interest in working for the betterment of the group and was never around to do his share.  Invariably, and repeatedly, he was a trouble maker that brought misery upon everyone. Sooner or later, fed up with the ne’er-do-well, the good people on the wagon train kicked him out and made him fend for himself.

 

Likewise, conservation farmers and the ag industry should stop protecting the bad actors. Yes, farmers should be proud of their occupation, but they also need to stop circling the wagons. I think defending your own is human nature, and I understand the temptation. But protecting bad actors paints all farmers with the same broad brush. And it’s a disservice to you the farmer, to your career as a farmer, to the ag industry and to our natural resources. Rather than defending all of agriculture, consider if it is time for conservation farmers to circle their own wagons and abandon the bad actors.