What I Learned About Farmers

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When I began on my journey of making Poor, I had some preconceived notions about America and the people who work our land and feed our citizens. I’m of course speaking of America’s farmers. When Trump won the election in 2016, I placed the blame on farmers for ushering in this living disaster into the White House. I let my anger and frustration get the best of me and it clouded my judgment on who farmers are and how they think. I admit I was guilty of showing zero remorse for farmers who began to suffer under Trump’s ridiculous tariff war with China. I was all in on “they get what they deserve” and “they elected him, let them pay the price.” However, in my journey of filming, I found my attitude about farmers to be a horrible miscalculation and still feel horrible about my words and animosity today.

Last summer I brought in Jillian Hurley as a producer to the Poor team. Jillian is an empathetic soul and not quick to judge to begin with. Jillian would take issue with my acidic comments about farmers and their support for Trump. Jillian was raised on a farm in Oklahoma and sympathized with farmers and had infinitely more exposure to farmers’ thoughts and feelings than I did. My image of a bunch of rubes toiling in the dirt and riding tractors was a stereotype that I needed to break down. So, I decided to look into the facts and tried to put myself in the head of a farmer, just as Jillian had encouraged to do. So, what did I find?

Farmers make up less than 2% of the population of the United States. This number is what first popped out at me, and I knew right then that my preconceptions were on shaky ground. In 2016 75% of rural farmers cast their votes in favor of Trump. That’s a large percentage and a substantial number, no doubt. But as a percentage of the entire electorate?  Not so much. I knew from a metrics standpoint laying so much blame and vitriol at their plows was dishonest on my part. Furthermore, how could we dump so much of the blame on them? I was not alone with this animosity: It was rampant on social media, where many lashed out at farmers just as I did. But farmers were no more culpable of believing false promises and boasts fed to them by the con man who was vying for residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue than the rest of the electorate. So, what were the promises he dangled to farmers to gain such overwhelming support from them?

Trump promised to support the Renewable Fuel Standard (corn growers/ethanol industry) and he also pledged to eliminate estate taxes on inherited farmland and roll back regulations on farm runoff. Most of all, farmers liked his tough talk on trade policy. They believed the image he projected of this tough-nosed negotiator and great dealmaker—the supposed qualities that every Trump supporter believed. They heard hope in his promises. But, like so many have been duped by Trump over the years, farmers got conned too. What he gave them was a campaign to destroy the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and an ongoing tariff war with China that has killed farms and farming across the country.

In the end, what cut through all the news stories and statistics I had read about farmers and what really changed my image was when we filmed In Iowa. It was a wonderful yet sobering experience. Our first filming day was with Aaron Lehman the president of the Iowa Farmers Union. Aaron is a fifth-generation family farmer from rural Polk County, where he and his family raise corn, soybeans, oats, and hay in both organic and conventional rotations. We met Aaron at his farmhouse and he gave us a warm welcome into his home, which was lovely, charming, and immaculately clean.

I’m a talker. I’ll chat with the interview subjects throughout the process. Aaron could talk about any subject with knowledge and with a wonderful and easy charm. We filmed him working on his equipment as he prepared for the harvest before the November frost hit. This was no display just for our cameras. It was hard work and he answered my questions with perfect poise, intelligence, and incisiveness. Within 30 minutes, the stereotype I had of farmers was circling down the drain.  Aaron then brought us out to the heavy machinery that he had to prepare, fix and adjust for the harvest. I was amazed at both the mechanical and technical knowledge required to run and maintain modern farming equipment. These huge work vehicles are truly like smart electronic devices, with GPS and a number of other features that I was unaware of. So much for my “know it all attitude.

We discussed issues that farmers face, not least why so many small and mid-size farms are all failing or being bought by Big Ag. We also talked about why farmers vote the way they do and much more. Then we discussed his family. Aaron had a son off at Cornell University, one of America’s finest universities. After meeting Aaron, that was no surprise. He clearly seemed to be a decent man who would do the right things right as a parent.

What had come to light for me is that farmers have to know a lot. They need to have mechanical knowledge, computer knowledge, agricultural knowledge, meteorological knowledge, business and market knowledge, and of course, a knowledge of how to navigate and influence politics.

Politics is the real beast for them, particularly for small and mid-size farms, which are pretty much on their own. Farm lobbies cater to Big Ag, not these farmers. Aaron was a leader in the fight to protect and support these smaller farms. He impressed me at every turn. I loved my time with him and can’t thank him enough for the knowledge he shared with me and for showing plainly what farmers are really like.

So, what did I learn in the end? It’s not farmers’ fault we have Trump, and they surely don’t deserve to be punished for his election. Like so many people, they just want to be able to be hopeful. They want to hope, not just for prosperity, but also for the chance to raise their families with respect and dignity. And they deserve that. After, they feed us all on a daily basis.

But they make no excuse to get us the sustenance we require to survive. They’re out in the fields every day working for all of us, and they deserve to heard and understood. And to think that I heaped blame them. I feel foolish now just thinking about it.  But thankfully—and with the help of people like Jillian Hurley and Aaron Lehman—I’ve come to terms with my prejudice. I hope that Poor will help others that have the opinion I once held about farmers will rethink their views and recognize the decency and dignity and indefatigable work ethic that farmers have.

 

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David Himmelstein

CUNY

Dr. David Himmelstein is a distinguished professor of public health and health policy in the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, adjunct clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has served as chief of the division of social and community medicine at Cambridge Hospital.

Nick Hanauer

Pitchfork Economics

Nick Hanauer is one of the most successful entrepreneurs, investors, and managers in the Pacific Northwest with over 30 years of experience across a broad range of industries including manufacturing, retail, e-commerce, digital media and advertising, software, aerospace, health care, and finance. He is a co-founder and partner of Second Avenue Partners, a Seattle-based venture capital firm that provides management, strategy, and capital for early stage companies. 

Barry Ritholtz

Ritholtz Wealth MGMT

Barry Ritholtz has spent his career helping people spot their own investment errors and to learn how to better manage their own financial behaviors. He is the creator of The Big Picture, often ranked as the number one financial blog to follow by The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and others.

Barry is the creator and host of Bloomberg’s “Masters in Business” radio podcast, and a featured columnist at the Washington Post. He is the author of the Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy (Wiley, 2009). In addition to serving as Chairman and Chief Investment Officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management, he is also on the advisory boards of Riskalyze, and Peer Street, two leading financial technology startups bringing transparency and analytics to the investment business.

Barry has named one of the “15 Most Important Economic Journalists” in the United States, and has been called one of The 25 Most Dangerous People in Financial Media. When not working, he can be found with his wife and their two dogs on the north shore of Long Island.

Richard Florida

City Lab

Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.

Janet Gornick

CUNY-Stone Center

Janet Gornick attended Harvard University, where she was awarded a B.A. (psychology and social relations, 1980), an M.P.A. (Kennedy School, 1987), and a Ph.D. (political economy and government, 1994). She is currently a professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. From September 2006 to August 2016, she served as director of LIS (formerly the Luxembourg Income Study), a cross‐national data archive and research center located in Luxembourg, with a satellite office at The Graduate Center. Since September 2016, she has served as director of the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Center on Socio‐Economic Inequality. The Stone Center includes the LIS satellite office, known as the US Office of LIS.

Ken Jacobs

UC Berkeley Labor Center

Ken Jacobs is the chair of the Labor Center, where he has been a labor specialist since 2002. His areas of specialization include low-wage work, labor standards policies, and health care coverage. He has recently worked on economic impact studies of proposed minimum wage laws for the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Jose, and conducted analyses of the public cost of low-wage work. Jacobs is the co-editor, with Michael Reich and Miranda Dietz, of When Mandates Work: Raising Labor Standards at the Local Level (University of California Press), an edited volume on the impacts of labor standards policies in San Francisco.

Steven Pitts

UC Berkeley Labor Center

Steven Pitts came to the Labor Center in August of 2001 from Houston, Texas. Steven received his Ph.D. in economics with an emphasis on urban economics from the University of Houston in 1994. His master’s degree is also from the University of Houston and he holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. For the fifteen years prior to his arrival at the Labor Center, Steven taught economics at Houston Community College and, for five years, he was an adjunct lecturer in the African American Studies Program at the University of Houston. At the Labor Center, Steven focuses on issues of job quality and Black workers. In this arena, he has published reports on employment issues in the Black community, initiated a Black union leadership school, and shaped projects designed to build solidarity between Black and Latino immigrant workers. Currently, a major area of his work involves providing technical assistance to efforts in developing Black worker centers around the country.

April Sims

WSLC AFL-CIO

April Sims was elected Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO by its affiliated unions in December 2018 and she began her four-year term on Jan. 5, 2019. She is the first woman of color to be elected as a WSLC executive officer.

April has served as the WSLC’s Political and Strategic Campaign Director since November 2017, working to develop shared agendas with labor and community partners, to advance strategic organizing campaigns (raising wages, naturalization, revenue reform, etc.), and to recruit, train and elect political champions for working people. She first joined the WSLC in September 2015 as Field Mobilization Director, working with WSLC-affiliated unions and community partners to support and encourage the participation of individual members with many different political, legislative and community programs.

Prior to joining the WSLC staff, Sims served as the Legislative and Political Action Field Coordinator for the Washington Federation of State Employees, AFSCME Council 28 (WFSE), where she was responsible for member education, communication, and mobilization around legislative issues and political campaigns. She was a WFSE member, shop steward, elected union officer, and union staffer from 2002-15.

Kathryn Edin

Princeton University

Edin is one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers. A qualitative and mixed-method researcher, she has taken on key mysteries about the urban poor that have not been fully answered by quantitative work: How do single mothers possibly survive on welfare? Why don’t more go to work? Why do they end up as single mothers in the first place? Where are the fathers and why do they disengage from their children’s lives? How have the lives of the single mothers changed as a result of welfare reform? The hallmark of her research is her direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income women, men, and children.

Gary Evans

Cornell University

Professor Evans is an environmental and developmental psychologist interested in how the physical environment affects human health and well being among children. His specific areas of expertise include the environment of childhood poverty, children’s environments (housing, schools, playgrounds, toys), cumulative risk and child development, environmental stressors, and the development of children’s environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Olga Miranda

SEIU 87

Olga is President of SEIU Local 87 in San Francisco. The SEIU was founded in 1921 in Chicago as the Building Services Employees Union (BSEU); its first members were janitors, elevator operators, and window washers.
Today SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America, uniting workers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Over 25 percent of our members whom identify as immigrants – a constant tribute to the union’s roots. From the start, SEIU has embraced its heritage as a union of immigrants and has stood on the frontline of immigrant justice.

“People open their lives and homes to us, for me it becomes not only a privilege but a responsibility to make sure their stories are told. We have to be brutally honest and empathetic when telling their stories. When it comes to filming families, the right thing to do is be their advocate and make sure people don’t look away. “
Jillian Hurley
Producer

Stephanie Porta

Organize Florida

As a community organizer, Stephanie Porta has spent the last 15 years working to support Florida’s low income communities in their fight for equity and dignity. Her work has led to raising Florida’s minimum wage in 2004, passing police accountability reforms, winning foreclosure prevention programs, affordable utility campaigns, electing progressive officials and much more.

In 2010, Stephanie co-founded Organize Florida to work on the needs of Florida’s low and moderate income communities and now acts as Executive Director. The membership organization has grown quickly and has membership in 17 counties across mid-Florida. In 2014, Stephanie championed efforts to pass Earned Sick Time in Orange County, and in 2016 supported outreach efforts to more than two million voters across Florida. Stephanie has been recognized by the Orlando Sentinel, Orlando Weekly, Orlando Magazine & Orlando Women’s Magazine for leadership on government transparency and issues facing the working poor.

Beth Babcock

Empathways

Elisabeth Babcock (Beth) is the President and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), an international charitable organization dedicated to creating new pathways to economic independence for low-income families. EMPath uses its unique “action-tank” business model to design, build, and test new approaches for creating economic mobility and then shares them with other organizations and governments.

Mike Buchman

Solid Ground

Mike is the Communications Director for Solid Ground in Seattle, WA. Solid Ground works to end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions that are root causes of poverty. Solid Ground envisions a community beyond poverty and oppression where all people have equitable opportunity to thrive.

Stephanie Kelton

Stony Brook University

Stephanie is a leading authority on Modern Monetary Theory, a new approach to economics that is taking the world by storm. She is considered one of the most important voices influencing the policy debate today.

Her forthcoming book, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (June 9, 2020), shows how to break free of the flawed thinking that has hamstrung policymakers around the world.

 

Lawrence Katz

Harvard University

Lawrence F. Katz is the Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics at Harvard University and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.  His research focuses on issues in labor economics and the economics of social problems. He is the author (with Claudia Goldin) of The Race between Education and Technology (Harvard University Press, 2008), a history of U.S. economic inequality and the roles of technological change and the pace of educational advance in affecting the wage structure. 

 

Stacy Mitchell

ILSR

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and analysis, and partners with a broad range of allies to design and implement policies to reverse corporate concentration and strengthen local enterprise.

Mitchell has also written for The AtlanticBloombergWashington Monthly, and Wall Street Journal.  She’s the author of the book Big-Box Swindle. Her perspective and research are frequently cited in news media and she’s appeared on several national radio shows and podcasts, including NPR’s On The Media and Chris Hayes’ Why Is This Happening?

 

"Income inequality is the greatest problem facing America today. It effects our other two major inequality issues, racial inequality and gender inequality. Income inequality must be remedied or America will inevitably collapse into a Banana Republic without drastic legislative and societal action."
Dave Pederson
Producer
"How the war on poverty became the war against the poor."
Dave Pederson
Producer

Jacob Hacker

Yale University

Jacob S. Hacker is Stanley Resor Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. A regular media commentator and policy adviser, he is the author or co-author of five books, numerous journal articles, and a wide range of popular writings on American politics and public policy. His most recent book, written with Paul Pierson, is American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper—a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and a best business book of 2016 according to the management magazine Strategy+Business.