Tale of Two Conferences

I didn’t want to go to Atlanta. The International Poultry Conference held there is a Big Ag event, and I didn’t see much gain for our little family-owned farm. We have nearly 3,000 hens that forage on pasture. Many of those who were at the Atlanta conference in late January count their chickens by the million.

“Good,” my husband said. “Then they must know something about birds.”

One plane, a train and two buses later, we were the non-business-attired minority — a couple of colorful standouts in a dark sea of 25,000 blue and black suits. Well, us and the dozen or so Mennonites.

We strung our lanyards over our necks and hit the exhibition floor, where I felt like a gaping rube at the 1829 World’s Fair. The booths were massive with machinery, movie screens and large, rotating signs overhead. Some exhibitors trolled for conventioneers with women in tight skirts.

“I should go talk to those exploited young women about organizing,” said Jason.

My look said: Yeah, keep walking, Farmer.

There was plenty to see. Colossal, hissing machines the size of our living room rolled trays of eggs to big metal arms to be injected with antibiotics at the rate of 30 shells a second — then conveyed them away. This was robotic technology out of the “Terminator” movies.


Our operation is hands-on. We hand-feed, water, gather each egg before hand-placing them into our circa 1954 AquaMagic IV washer. Then we hand-pack them.

Jason is convinced that Big Ag has things to teach Little Ag about automating some systems, even though our hens never go near battery cages. He went from booth to booth explaining our business model, and while the salespeople were generally polite, they didn’t have much to offer.

I wanted to talk to the Mennonite crowd, a group I perceived I had more in common with despite the women’s bonnets and prairie dresses and the men’s robust beards and wool vests. I sidled up to a group, but when I opened up my mouth I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like “That little hat of yours tells me we’d have a great conversation about natural methods of poultry production.”

And just as I was getting ready to suggest to Jason that we bail, he stumbled upon a booth from Germany. While here to sell their factory farming equipment, the Germans have been combining automation with pasture-raised birds for years. Jason was plied with photos, movies and an invitation to visit their farm.

Jason was right; there’s value in leaving in our comfort zone. David Brooks was onto something in his 2003 essay in the Atlantic: “We all pay lip service to the melting pot, but we really prefer the congealing pot” — a place of ease where we are unlikely to be challenged. I’ve succumbed to this, and probably not just when it comes to chickens.

It seems my preference for birds of a feather is part of a national trend. Our politics are more polarized than ever in history. Pew research shows that Facebook users are hiding or even deleting “friends” who have dared display political views that differ from their own.

Last weekend we went to a different kind of event: the Midwest Organics Conference in La Crosse, Wis. If we had felt like hippies in Atlanta, in La Crosse we felt … moderate. It’s a place we fit in well enough, but honestly everyone fits in. Attendees demonstrated their commitment to sustainable farming with educational seminars, organic food and even yoga. It was like a warm bath of acceptance with plenty of like-minded folks to chat up.

But I took a breath and walked over to a family of Mennonites. The melting pot isn’t always comfortable, but it’s better than the alternative.

This essay first appeared on the commentary page of Minnesota Public Radio. Special thanks to editor Eric Ringham.