To paraphrase Bono when he introduces “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on one of the best live albums ever — there’s been a lot of talk about this next article, maybe too much talk.
Much has been made of The Atlantic magazine’s very pointed online article claiming the Amish are being driven out of St. Lawrence County by big agribusiness. You can read it here.
The author, Malcolm Burnley (credited as an editorial fellow, not all that much up the food chain from an intern) has come clean on the journalistically messy fact that he lived with and worked for his main source in the story, Heuvelton farmer Brian Bennett. (He’s been interviewed many times on NCPR).
The Atlantic’s fact checkers have corrected a boatload of errors in the story, from calling Canton “DePeyster” to the claim that there’s something called “synthetic manure.”
The Watertown Daily Times published an article challenging and refuting pretty much the entire story. It’s a very good rebuttal and speaks directly to the claims in the Atlantic (although I’m not sure why Christopher Robbins quoted his own managing editor, also a bit messy, journalistically).
Journalism expert and blogger Jim Romanesko even highlighted the whole affair.
The thing that’s interesting to me is how it reflects a changing sense of what we think of as farming. Burnley was incorrect to write that big agribusiness has been moving into the region. But, as the WDT points out, farms HAVE grown up here – a handful of family dairy farms have transformed into major, huge operations, with thousands of animals, millions of gallons of manure, more than a dozen employees, and a fleet of farm vehicles.
In short, these farms are industrial scale on the pint-sized landscape of North Country fields. They challenge our (often quaint) notion of what the family farm is. They aren’t regulated nearly as closely as comparable “factories” in other industries. Though, if you ask water quality experts what kind of farming they’re most concerned about, it’s the small, mom-and-pop dairy farms that aren’t regulated at all.
Agriculture is changing quickly in the North Country, with a boom in small, diversified farms, including the Amish ones, along with the consolidation of many dairy farms into larger, agribusiness ones. How they all get along is shifting, too.
And, the Amish community is always changing. I asked the North Country’s leading expert on Amish culture – and a heavily quoted source in The Atlantic story, Karen Johnson-Weiner – what she thought of the article’s main thrust. She said, “the context is not so dire as the author made it out to be.” Amish families make decisions for many reasons, like the rest of us: because land may be costly in a place, but also because they can’t find land near the people who worship like them, or because they have 11 children and need to find enough land for all of them, or because there’s something new they’d like to be a part of somewhere else. Yes, some Amish are moving out, but many are also moving in, and land prices only have something to do with it. “It’s a complicated picture,” says Johnson-Weiner.
It’s too bad The Atlantic got it so wrong – they really did. And it’s too bad the editors are standing by a main thesis that really doesn’t convey what’s happening in real life. It’s too bad because there are fascinating, complicated issues at stake for St. Lawrence County, its agricultural community, and its economy. There’s plenty of room for outsiders in that debate. I would have loved to read what a journalist with a more open mind would have found here.