At one minute to seven, the bureau’s president—the affable, though imposing and firm hand-shaking, Mr. Sandy Ballou—promptly called the meeting to order, complete with a standing Pledge of Allegiance. I was joined at first in the audience by a Miss Catherine Renner and Miss Julie Yoder, two ten-year-olds who had won an “Ag in the Classroom” competition based on a short, themed essay and who had come (under the eager gazes of Miss Renner’s mother, father, grandparents, and slightly distracted younger brother) to read aloud their submissions to the bureau’s board. The delivery of these page-and-a-half long essays was unusually good: Miss Renner waxed eloquently about the “cattleman” who lived across the street from her parents’ “ranchette” and how, as a younger child, she had been appreciative of his efforts to teach her how to raise “beef” in her parents’ front yard. Miss Yoder retold the lively story of the local pumpkin patch at which she shops for Jack-o-lanterns every October (the second page of which, most impressively, included a paragraph-long list of obscure varieties of squashes and pumpkins she had come to know well). After the much-deserved applause, and Mr. Ballou’s appropriately encouraging words, and the obligatory photographs taken together flanked by the hanging, American flag, Miss Renner, Miss Yoder, and accompanying family members politely and quietly excused themselves—leaving me alone in the white chairs—and the board turned to the approval of last month’s minutes.
Next came the reports; the news on sheep, beef, bees, and ranchers’ use of public lands is decidedly bad: in case we needed reminding, our nation’s agriculture is waning. The country’s sheep numbers are in precipitous decline; the industry’s infrastructure is abandoned, neglected, or antiquated; and there’s only one slaughterhouse left that processes lamb west of the Rockies. Beef numbers are troublingly low too and the number of head being brought to market are a million short of demand; as a rancher, prices fetched to send your immature steer to a feedlot are accordingly (and unfortunately, enticingly) high and are already encouraging unhealthy and greedy practices. American bees are threatened by international disease and cross-border competition: due to NAFTA, it’s more cost effective to truck hives north from Mexico to the almond fields of California than it is to bring them in from Florida, Michigan, and Maine, as they always have; commercial hive numbers across the country are declining then, especially with the competition of low-grade, cheap honey shipped in from China; at least, reported a Mr. McClaugherty, there has been a boom of interest in home-scale beekeeping. A wiry fellow with a regal, ten-gallon cowboy hat who sits on the bureau’s board described the ranchers’ ongoing frustrations with the unilateral regulations of the government, which for years have slowly eroded historical grazing rights in national forests: the ranchers have decided that the government ought finally to begin attending these annual “bitch sessions,” as the wiry fellow describes them—incredible to think all these years the ranchers’ complaining has fallen on deaf governmental ears.
As a small farmer in Nevada County, I sat, struggling to reconcile my work with this scale of agricultural phenomena. As I tug each morning on my chicken tractors, or lug the brooding chicks their daily water in five-gallon buckets, or curse the electric netting and my day when the net’s white, wiry strands get stuck in blackberry brambles and need undoing, or spend hours over weeks trying to obtain approval from the county for a lousy ag pole so that our nine-acre property can have basic power, how can I appreciate what a million cattle sound like, or look like across a horizon, or cost, or mean? News from the Farm Bureau of the state of national agriculture is like listening to the war report over the radio: hundreds of lives lost mean nothing until you arrive at the corner store and your bread, or the glue, or the gallon of milk has been rationed.
Perhaps this explains why the evening’s most heated exchange concerned the wild animal trappers’ request for a new fifty-dollar piece of machinery. Gentlemen who sat silent all meeting around circularly-arranged folding tables suddenly felt passionately that it was no business of this Farm Bureau to provide funding to a government organization (the trappers run out of the USDA) that refuses to provide for and take care of the needs of their own employees. So and so knew so and so in Placer County who assures so and so that it is downright illegal for a government organization to accept donations from private groups. Over there in the corner, one thought the bureau should up and buy the winch for the trappers and not just submit the fifty dollar check. Him, over there, he was sure the check would do just fine. In the end, with some audibly disgruntled “yays,” a surprisingly generous motion was made, seconded, and passed that allotted the overworked trappers sixty dollars to go towards the purchase price of a winch for their truck (pending the establishment of the legality of just such a gift), so that they’d no longer need to lift the five-hundred-pound wild boars they shoot on folk’s suburban lawns into the bed of their truck by hand.
After this tempest in a teapot over a winch, I was sure then that they’d take up with great enthusiasm Mr. Brad Fowler’s “Food Freedom Act” agenda item. A community in faraway Maine has taken the bold and unprecedented first step toward ridding themselves of government interference in their food; they have recently drafted an ordinance that denies and voids all federal and state regulation of food products (think meat, dairy, value-added products, etc.) when the sale occurs directly and simply between producer and final consumer. Much of my reason for attending the Farm Bureau meeting, admittedly, was to hear Mr. Fowler address the board concerning these goings-on in Sedgwick, Maine. But, the very same folk who’d been so lively in the winch debate sat quietly by as Mr. Fowler gave an impassioned argument for why we should, here in Nevada County, take up a similar, food-freeing fight. The room sort of politely listened, nodded, shrugged, and agreed that it should be included in next month’s agenda, again, under the section for “Old Business.” I tried hard not to display my disappointment with their reaction. I suppose this agenda item too is like the war on the radio that no one knows how to care about. The winch is so much more the rationed bread.
I am inspired as a young farmer in the county to reconnect with these older, agricultural institutions—like the Farm Bureau—institutions that were once terribly topical, and vibrant, and powerful in every rural community, and ought to be again. It felt meaningful to be amongst these fellow agricultural folks for an evening; besides, I think they like the youth sitting in the audience, and I enjoy being made to feel a little bit more like a real, proper farmer. Mr. Ballou adjourned the meeting at 8:56; Mr. Fowler assured me before we began that they always made an effort to be finished by nine.