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Ag Forum: In a digital world, is agriculture still relevant?Print

Food & Farming | September 18, 2014 | By Bill Palladino

*This column originally appeared in the September 12, 2014, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle

Bill Palladino

It’s a digital world, or so they say. We’re all plugged in — while being wireless. We’ve got hundreds of channels and thousands of “friends.” We give our money to corporations managed by bankers whose hands we’ve never shaken. Our social value is measured in likes, clicks, and the size of our in-boxes. We are running ever faster away from the things that mandate human interaction and responsibility. Woefully, we refer to this as progress.

Yet despite technology’s advancements, the last time I checked food isn’t grown by the judicious application of ones and zeros. Websites don’t plant seeds, and microchips don’t worry about organic certification audits. I’ve never known a software company to bring a handful of loam to its nose and smile at its richness, or let slip a tear of joy at the birth of a calf. My son’s Xbox, while engaging, will certainly never offer assistance to an ailing neighbor or let a dozen kids ride in a hay wagon just to hear them laugh.

With technology taking over our lives, is agriculture still relevant in a world racing to leave old ways behind? Solidly I say the answer is yes, and that its value is immeasurable. 

Agriculture offers us humanity — differentiating us from every other species on Earth. Humanity cannot be a component of technology. It is in fact its antithesis. So, I offer the notion that while we should all be thankful to agriculture for its economic gifts, sustenance, and pastoral beauty, we should go one step further. We should be grateful every day to agriculture for our humanity.

The classical strengths attributed to humanity are love, kindness, and social intelligence. In today’s society these attributes are easily orphaned for the advancement of political clout or net worth. And while it might be technological sacrilege to suggest it, there is no app for that! You won’t find humanity with a GPS unit. It isn’t kept on the shelf of a discount store, or at the bottom of a $2.99 Happy Meal.

Humanity is sown only by sentient beings living their lives with reverence for others. It flourishes in collaboration, grows richer over time, and begs us to be grounded. It requires contact; love, kindness and social intelligence cannot happen in a vacuum or over the Internet. Our agricultural community is key to building our supply of these essential and ephemeral elements as technology fuels news of war and tragedy around the world. More specifically, it is the people in agriculture who help us generate and bank humanity.

Farmers do this naturally every day, as do many value-added food producers. They express a philosophy through their work that I understand as, “what comes from my hand, feeds another, and what feeds another, feeds me in turn.” Agriculture offers us proof of its relevance with a constant lesson in humanity. It is our job to put down our smartphones, to watch, to listen, and to learn.

Bill Palladino is project director of Taste the Local Difference, a program of the Michigan Land Use Institute.