There is a culture war raging in the heartland. It’s not about abortion or religion or gay marriage, it’s about how food is produced in this country.
As in any war, language is playing a big role. Take, for instance, the way Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad defended the beef product that came to be known as “pink slime.”
“It’s just tragic that people use smear language against products,” Branstad said. “We would never let people smear somebody because of who/what they look like, or their race, or their religion.”
Yes, Branstad compared the uproar over processed beef to the civil rights movement.
And now comes the latest battle cry in the heated discourse on food production methods: accusations of bullying.
At the center of this story is 17-year-old Jamie Pudenz, who raises chickens on his family's farm in Carroll, Iowa. He is the image of a corn-fed farm boy — blond hair, broad shoulders and an easy, open smile.
Step inside his chicken shed and you’ll see low to the ground cages filled with white chickens. But there’s something awkward about the birds — they’re kind of like gawky teenage boys whose feet are too big for their limbs, except reversed. Pudenz said the broiler birds are genetically modified. They used to take 96 days to mature. Now, it just takes just 48.
“Humans eat 90 pounds of chicken on average a year and this is the way to achieve it,” Pudenz said. “This is the way to meet the demand, now, today.”
As part of an FFA competition, Pudenz wrote a speech in support of animal agriculture. He was one of 12 to make it to the state finals in Ames.
But the competition didn't go so well.
Kolby Burch, Pudenz's agriculture teacher, said a judge lashed out at Pudenz. That led to a press release from the Iowa Farm Bureau entitled “Bullying the farm kid.”
But was the bullying accusation fair?
“I think it fits perfectly,” Burch said. “I think that the man simply disagreed with Jamie, so he bullied him.”
Scott Johnson, FFA's executive secretary, disputed that characterization in an e-mail. “The untold story is that these judges were pretty challenging for many of the 12 participants in the event, and not just this one individual,” Johnson wrote.
That’s not how it felt to Pudenz.
“It’s next to the middle of my speech,” Pudenz said, “where I say ‘Now let’s focus a bit on the importance of animal agriculture. This is an industry that’s been villianized by such internet films as ‘The Meatrix,’ ‘Food Incorporated,’ and HSUS undercover footage of hog confinements and poultry barns.’”
HSUS is the Humane Society of the United States.
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, maintains that he is not Pudenz’ enemy, they’re just on opposite sides of a debate. They may not agree on everything, like the role of confinement crates (boxes some conventional hog farmers use).
“Jamie ... adopts the party line,” Pacelle said. “I’m sure in five years, Jamie’s attitude is going to be totally different, because there is no future in holding the line on confinement crates.”
Enemy or no, if you talk to farmers, Wayne Pacelle and the Humane Society come up a lot.
Erik Helland, a former republican legislator from Johnston, Iowa, is a board member of the agriculture advocacy group Protect the Harvest. Its clear mission is to take down the Humane Society.
“Wayne Pacelle, the head of HSUS, is on-record saying he would like to do away with animal production agriculture all the way across the United States,” Helland said.
Pacelle, though, said that’s not true. The Humane Society’s mission is not to end livestock farming, but instead to make it sustainable and humane.
You can talk to these guys for hours. One’s political agreement is the others' blackmail. Both say science is on their side and charge the other side with manipulating emotions, coining language like “puppy mills” or “freedom to farm.” And, they say, the other side is no better than a classroom bully.
“So much of what they say is just in their own echo chamber, talking to themselves and trying to caricature the work of the Humane Society,” Pacelle said. “Why would the United Egg Producers work shoulder to shoulder with the HSUS if we were out to end the sale of all animal products?”
He's referring to an agreement between the Humane Society and the United Egg Producers, or UEP, that changes the way eggs go to market. Even agreement, though, isn’t seen in black and white terms.
Helland, of course, doesn’t see the agreement simply.
“What they call 'working with farmers' I call blackmail,” Helland said. “The reality is you either line up with a group like UEP or they take you out by doing an unethical video attack on you or they come after you in the marketplace by saying ‘Boycott this food place.’ So, they’re not working with you, they’re blackmailing you into a corner.”
Middle ground is hard to find in the debate. That leaves aspiring farmers like Jamie Pudenz caught in the middle, struggling to understand the truths of their chosen profession in a supercharged partisan debate.