You might have read about it in all the papers, if the only paper you read is the New York Times. "Food for Tomorrow" was a two day, big ticket extravaganza of a Conference designed to answer one important question: How do we feed a fast-growing world population? The underlying assumption was current 'industrial' agricultural practices are not up to the challenge.

The concept sprang from the often confused mind of NYT foodie, author of books like 'How to Cook Everything Vegetarian' and occasional columnist, Mark Bittman, a farm boy from Oregon who went off to the big city and promptly forgot all he knew about plowing the land. Maybe his head was turned by hobnobbing with the wealthiest denizens of the Upper East Side or enjoying too many dinners with the likes of Carrie Bradshaw and her three best friends - Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. A steady diet of foie gras, Cosmopolitans and $200 dinners at New York's finest restaurants will do that to you.

How the Conference began

Listening to Bittman's opening salvo, strangely delivered at the very upscale Stone Barns Center adjacent to the Rockefeller estate, shows that he is very much against what he perceives as the evils of 'Big Ag' and believes with all his heart that peasant agriculture will cure everything bad and unhealthy about the world's food supply. Big is almost uniformly bad in his mind. 

I say almost because he conned a few large companies into sponsoring his Small Ag love fest and still managed to keep the common folk away by charging a stiff $1,400 registration fee and asking Marriott to be the host hotel with its bargain basement room rates of just $279 a night. No Motel 6 or even Holiday Inn riff raff allowed. Because attendance was limited, applicants were carefully screened and rumor has it that a few unsavory types were rejected even if they did have the cash in hand.  

Janet Riley, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs and Member Services of the American Meat Institute, managed to finagle an approved registration, though. Writin an opinion piece for Meatingplace magazine afterwards, she said, "What conference organizers seemed to like about big companies, however, was their ability to write checks to augment the $1,400 per person registration fees." She added, "The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) brought the farmers that the conference nearly forgot." 

"Going to the New York Times Conference wasn't comfortable for me but it is important to directly address the kinds of misperceptions I heard," she told me. "After hearing about the evils of Big Ag, I asked where is the line between 'Big' and 'Small.' After all, one of the sponsors, Chobani, started out as a small business and grew because the founder had a great idea. Are they now 'Big Yogurt'?"

The USFRA tries to balance the scales

Riley's comment about the USFRA's contribution is true. The original one-sided agenda fell way short of the mark when no one actively engaged in farming or ranching was invited to speak. An event centered around growing food but including no one who actually grew food? Sounds like an old fashioned, wild west necktie party to me. No need for a trial; string the horse thievin' varmint up! (To see the full agenda, click here.)

The USFRA fought for parity when they paid dearly for their sponsorship. The initial asking price was close to $2 million but USFRA CEO Randy Krotz said they paid substantially less and the package included several other benefits."The soy, pork and beef boards helped us with the fee and it included advertorial materials in important issues of the New York Times magazine as well as email access to the attendees and 20 tickets to the Conference," he said.

"We used those tickets to bring some of our board members to the event," he said, "and our attendance really helped make a difference.  Bittman's declaration of war at the beginning was considerably softer at the close. He said, 'If Bruce Rominger is Big Ag, then I'm with Big Ag' and that was a significant change. The tone went from adversarial to 'we're all in this together'."

Rumor has it that many of the other speakers had to 'pay to play,' which would make the Conference more of a financial boon to the Times than a realistic look at the state of world agriculture. In print, the newspaper always makes advertising apparent; were they guilty of disguising paid commercial content here?

The USFRA breakfast and panel discussion was titled "Big Ag, Big Food: How Being Good for the Environment Is Not about Size" (Click on the title to see the video). The only valid participation by people involved in day-to-day production agriculture, it brought a sense of balance to the proceedings.

Krotz commented about some of the misinformation he saw. "During dinner, Dan Barber (chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns) described each of the items on the dinner menu and talked about the use of cover crops and crop rotation as though they had just been discovered, but those are things we've been using for years. I think the people who promote local agriculture and organic production have done a much better job than we have in using those kinds of terms to give more value to how food is produced."

Krotz was enthusiastic about the outcome, too. Talking about the audience, he said, "It was a visible and influential group for the American farmer to be involved with. We showed that 'Big Ag' is not bad ag, that we're all interested in sustainability and what we do goes hand-in-hand with answering consumer demand."

Mark Bittman's declaration of war against 'Big Ag'

Bittman began the conference with a stem-winder of a speech, starting slowly and gradually ramping up into an old-fashioned, Elmer Gantry style tent revival sales pitch as he issued a war cry against ‘Big Ag.’ “It’s war,” he said and, asking an enthralled audience to join him in a fight against an evil and entrenched modern agricultural system, he added, “Much of what it produces pollutes, sickens, exploits and robs.” 

"There's a war here," he said, "a war of world views and tactics and strategy." Flexing the growing muscles of the often factually challenged, urban-centered foodie movement, he issued this threat: "We're not as powerful as we will be, but we are more powerful than we were."

Bittman remarked that asking how to change the food system and feed the soon to be 9 billion hungry mouths 'remains a diversion.' In an incredibly simplistic statement, he said the way to feed them is simple; eliminate poverty. Only the very poor are starving, the wealthy will always eat well, he said.

I'll agree that people who have money are not starving. They aren't going hungry today and they won't starve decades from now when the population has grown dramatically. The hungry have always been the world's poor, many of whom live off what little they can grow on meager plots of poor soil and even more who live in areas that cannot support any kind of agriculture. Eliminate their poverty and the problem goes away? 

If it were only that easy.

Starving for the facts

Here are some frightening statistics from the World Food Programme - 805 million people, about one in nine, do not have enough food. The vast majority of the world's hungry live in developing countries, where 13.5 percent of the population is undernourished. Asia has the most hungry people - two thirds of the total. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of hunger - one person in four is undernourished.

Poor nutrition causes 45 percent of deaths in children under five - 3.1 million children each year.  One out of six children – roughly 100 million – in developing countries is underweight. One fourth of the world's children are stunted. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three. 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry with 23 million in Africa alone. That this is a world health crisis driven by poverty is undeniable.

What constitutes poverty is a moving target, though. Bring those millions up to today's par will inevitably move the rest of the world up in lockstep as we all bid for the planet's limited resources. Instead of 'poor' being those who earn less than a thousand dollars a year, the new definition will be those same people who will be earning less than $10,000 a year.

There is enough food to feed the world's wealthy and near wealthy, Bittman acknowledged. Recognizing the overly obvious, he noted that feeding people is a byproduct of making money. The irony of speaking those words from the home base of the Rockefellers, a family that epitomized the wealthiest of the robber barons of the 1800's, was lost on Bittman and most of his audience.

How Bittman defines modern agriculture

Bittman chose this toniest of venues to redefine what most people call conventional western agriculture. Industrial agriculture is not conventional, he claimed, peasant farming is far more conventional. He said it produces two thirds of the world's food supply and is more green, fair, affordable and nutritious.

"The majority of the world," he said, "is fed by hundreds of millions of small farmers."

Correct, and most of that majority are found in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where they lead a bare, hand-to-mouth existence, highly dependent on the increasingly unpredictable weather and the size of the next crop to avoid starvation. Peasant farmers spend every year just a half-step away from famine and they feed just a few people beyond their immediate family, not the 155+ a farmer using modern agricultural practices can feed.

Who spoke on behalf of modern agriculture?

Two of the modern ag industry's best advocates, Julie Maschhoff and Joan Ruskamp, participated in the USFRA sponsored panel discussion along with Bruce Rominger. He's a partner in Rominger Brothers Farms located west of Sacramento, CA. It's large and diversified family farm and ranch growing a variety of crops. Frank Sesno, former CNN correspondent, anchor and Washington bureau chief, and director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, moderated the session. I talked with Maschhoff and later with Ruskamp a few days afterwards.

Julie Maschhoff, her husband, brother-in-law and sister-in-law own The Maschhoffs, LLC, one of the nation's largest and most successful pork producers. Dating back to 1851 and based in central Illinois, it's a farrow-to-finish, family-owned business and one of the nation’s largest independent swine production operations. The company employs more than 1,000 people and focuses on creating environmentally and economically sustainable pork production systems. 'Sustainable' was the key word/constant refrain throughout the Conference.

Joan Ruskamp and her husband operate a feedlot and row-crop farm about an hour-and-a-half northwest of Omaha, Nebraska. It's almost a centenarian business, a family farm owned by generations of Ruskamps for nearly 100 years. Joan is a graduate of the University of Nebraska, where she earned an associate degree in veterinary medicine in 1980.

She's active in the beef industry, with service to the Nebraska Cattlemen, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Cattlemen's Beef Board, American National CattleWomen, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Soybean Association, and the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska. She has served on a committee for the annual Ag-Ceptional Women's Conference, is an alumnus of the Nebraska LEAD program, and volunteers for CommonGround.

Q. The panel you participated in was a late addition sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Association. How much of an impact did it have on the audience?

(Julie) Did it make a difference? Yes. How much? That is harder to measure immediately but I bet we can get a few more editorials in the NYT to further document the facts! I hope USFRA will continue to seek out opportunities like this. They realize the people who have to hear these messages are type of urban consumers who attended the conference. The very fact that people welcomed our presentation further demonstrates that our message is important to all consumers.

(Joan) I don't think it dawned on the organizers that they weren't including people who actually produced food. Instead of a program that said you all have to do it my way, they opened it up to people in agriculture.

Q. From your perspective, what can you tell me about the people who attended?

(Julie) People of various urban backgrounds came together to focus on sustainable food supply. They seemed to think that sustainability should be back yard gardening, small farming, things that suit very small urban landscapes.

(Joan) Porsche was a sponsor and one of their guys talked with me about what we do. There were others who worked with farmers' markets and farm-to-table programs. None of them were farmers, by the way. One of the ladies I talked with had me meet her husband because she said I totally changed her mind on beef products. 

The problem is they don't know what we do in agriculture by just driving by; they don't understand how interconnected we all are. How a corn farmer is connected to a cattle rancher for instance or how cattle feeders, pork producers and chicken farmers are a community. I don't think they realized that, but that was how we were portrayed in the beginning - as polluters with no regard to society, contributing to obesity and nutrition problems and living on government subsidies.

Q. The title of the Conference - 'Food for Tomorrow' - suggests it was aimed at a worldwide audience.  Did it hit that target or miss?

(Julie) Titling a conference 'Food for Tomorrow' sounds more inclusive, yet the average person attending was wealthy enough to have their food grown the way they want it grown. I think its a little harder for them to understand those farming techniques don't work in Africa or China or even in all 50 of these United States.

Q. Does that mean the conference was more about how to feed the very wealthy of the future rather than how to feed the world? Were the organizers aiming too high on the economic scale as far as attendance and attitudes?

(Julie) Many of the people in the audience were true disciples of Mark Bittman and very financially independent. Yet, it was still a varied group of food elitists in some ways. There were people who were serious about looking to agriculture to feed the rest of the world; to learn more about how 'Big' agriculture could help feed the planet.

(Joan) The opening statement on the first day was a declaration of war by Mark Bittman and he had some standing applause for it. It scared me. At mealtime, though, people were very polite. Even if they didn't agree with what I was doing, there were no harsh words. I appreciated it. I didn't get any one-on-one aggression.

The people I spoke with after our panel discussion really got what I was saying. We put real faces to things that we were doing. The first day, Bittman was talking about us using poisons, toxins, polluting the water, and shoving things down animals’ throats. Then, on the second day, they heard Julie and I talk about modern agricultural practices, saying this is who we are and what we do. Seeing some real faces of agriculture was a big hit. The people there understood that even though we're not in a farmers' market, we still care about what we're doing.

Q. Bittman's opening keynote speech that included a declaration of a food war - did that set an antagonistic tone?

(Julie) You are referring to Mr. Bittman's call for a food revival complete with fire and brimstone and calling Iowa 'Ground Zero'? He wanted to shock the audience out of its comfort zone and ask them to think about real change. Those of us in agriculture know we are already in a state of perpetual change. The difference is we in agriculture trust science in order to make those changes; we're not as cynical about what we do and what can be done as most of the audience was. I do think the audience was not as far out on the dial as he was, though.

Q. Reading Mark Bittman's column and Michael Pollan's books, another of the more well-known organizers, I get the impression that they have an overly-romanticized ideal of how modern agriculture should be. How many understood that farming and ranching is a business?

(Julie) That was probably the biggest misperception among the group. I think most of them saw sustainable agriculture as simply the man or woman who could bring a pickup truck full of produce to a farmers' market once or twice a week. The very fact that Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan can talk about going back to peasant farming and the intense local food plots of years ago, and people would nod there heads in agreement, told me that they were for sustainable gardening but that is not a sustainable agricultural business.

Q. Julie, after your panel discussion, did you have a chance to talk with many people in the audience?

Yes, a lot of people came up and said thank you. They appreciated meeting farmers and ranchers, people with a sense of humor, people with families and concerns focused on solutions that will help us feed the world tomorrow. Many of them have heard that modern agriculture is bad, and they simply never explored it further.

Q. How about the other presentations, were they on or off the mark? 

(Julie) Molly Jahn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture, talked about using technology for information, about ways to use it to change and shape our industry. She was looking at making agriculture more sophisticated, not less. It was a different approach from others who were looking at making agriculture more holistic, more simplistic, more than just planting a seed in the dirt and pulling out every weed that comes up around it.

Sam Kass, who worked on Michelle Obama's food campaign for healthier kids, recognized that food has to be made more affordable in all neighborhoods, not just where people can drive their Porsches to Whole Foods. That was a more practical approach. It set a more moderate tone. 

I wouldn't write off the people who attended as unapproachable. They only know about agriculture from one angle, from their own perspective. The conference allowed them to hear from people with another perspective and that was a positive outcome

(Joan) Some made good points and had substance; others were just opinions. Maybe we in agriculture need to have our own Food for the Future meetings to discuss what we're doing and how we are doing it.  We should act first, get ahead of government regulations because it just makes us look like we don't care. If we see problems in water or soil or air quality, we need to act first. We shouldn't wait for the government to tell us we have a problem and how to solve it.

It would be better for us if we can get the New York Times to say the farming community is having a dialog and we invite Bittman to come. If we have a problem, it is always better to heal from within rather than wait for someone else to tell us that we have to go to the doctor.

Every single person in ag needs to talk about what were doing. We have to see ourselves as an important and responsible part of the whole picture and make sure the public sees us in the same light.

Q. Joan, I suspect a few in the audience saw farmers and ranchers as hicks dressed on bib overalls who couldn't talk right, and they were surprised at seeing a panel of well-dressed, well-spoken people who had recently showered. Is that a correct read?

Sure could be. Getting there and looking at the parking lot, there was not one pick up truck. We're talking about food, and there was not one truck. To me, a pick up is one thing that says who we are. All those Porsches can't be used to haul around a calf or a bag of feed. They had their cappuccinos and espressos at the coffee bar. I wanted just a plain coffee.

Q. That $1,400 figure registration feed lmited entry to a moneyed elite and the conference was designed to reach conclusions about how to feed people 50 years from now.  Were there average folks or just New York City moneyed elite in attendance? 

(Joan) I did see some common sense people who didn't know how agriculture worked in the Midwest. They had some assumptions that were inaccurate. It seemed like they were mostly the elites, though. 

We just have to give a better voice to what were doing. We can't wait for other people to lead us. Agriculture has been in the forefront of technology and how to do things better. We just have to be in the forefront of talking about what we're doing. Most people don't have a clue. We need to be better advocates.

Q. Feedlots are one of the most reviled and misunderstood parts of animal agriculture. Joan, were you able to change that perception?

I'm not sure, but people did come up afterwards and thank me for what we're doing. I know the final talk by Mark Bittman was far softer and he was wearing a Team Beef t-shirt. His group wants to influence Obama big time on his food policy. They're going to try to help write regs on food production, too. Perhaps the group at the Conference will share their thoughts that maybe this whole thing in the Midwest isn't so bad.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.