In yesterday’s post about the Vilsack hearing, I missed one small but remarkable bit of drama (notable at an event marked by lack thereof).

Turns out that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) delivered a sarcastic and, well, imbecilic little monologue comparing "small" organic farmers to the real men who run 10,000-acre wheat plantations in the plains of his state. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) had dared suggest that the USDA should think about supporting the work of family-scale organic farmers. That led Roberts to offer up a definition of "small farmer" for Vilsack’s edification:

That small family farmer is about 5’2", and I’m looking to see if Mr. Leahy is sitting here, from Vermont, and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly — he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab — and his wife works as a stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.

Right, so small family farmers are effete men of limited stature who watch the apples grow between admiring glances at glossy shots of Clooney while their trousers-wearing wives trek to money-making Manhattan to support the idyllic operation. And what of real farmers?

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That person is in Iowa. He’s got 2,000 acres and he farms and he farms with his dad. Two brothers are gone because they can’t really sustain that on the farm. His counterpart in Kansas, in my part of the country, has 10,000 acres. And his tractor costs about $350,000. It’s amazing, in terms of the costs. But these folks are the folks who produce the food and fiber for America and a troubled and hungry world.

That’s fantastic. For some reason, the outburst made me think of Will Allen — a small-scale farmer in Milwaukee who feeds lots of people from relatively tiny patches of land. Something tells me that Allen, who stands about 6′ 7", could make Roberts cry with a pointed glance.

But then, I hate to validate Roberts’ knuckle-dragging idea that height matters in farming. Surely you don’t need to be a burly man’s man to operate one of those high-tech, power-steered, climate-controlled, diesel-sucking combines that glide through the Midwest’s large-scale farm fields doing all the work, do you?

On human-scale farms that actually produce food for people to eat — and not commodities for industry — effective farmers come in all shapes and sizes. One of the greatest farmers I’ve ever known is Alyssa Rudolph, 2007 farm manager at Maverick Farms. She stands 5′ 2" on a good day. She didn’t have much time for reading — GQ or otherwise — too busy planting, harvesting, weeding, running a CSA, etc. Feeding people, in short. I doubt Roberts could last 15 minutes trying to keep up with her.

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Over on Ethicurean, Bonnie Powell has an outraged post on the matter. She has set up a Flickr page featuring photos of small-scale farmers for Roberts’ edification. Check it out.

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