When I was a young farmer, a customer visited my family’s stand at a farmer’s market in New Jersey, where we sold tomatoes.
This was back when tomatoes went for just 29 cents per pound. I’m not a young farmer anymore—but I’ve never forgotten our exchange.
“All you farmers do is throw seed in the ground and then pick the tomatoes,” complained our customer. “You don’t do anything, and you make a fortune.”
No, he wasn’t a youthful Michael Bloomberg, traveling across the Hudson River and into our state before he became famous as a billionaire businessman, a mayor of New York City, and now a presidential candidate.
But the old encounter came to mind last week when the news broke about what Bloomberg said of farmers in 2016: “I could teach anybody … to be a farmer. … You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.”
For a job in the 21st century, he added, “you have to have a lot more gray matter.” (For the full context of Bloomberg’s remarks, watch this video.)
At first, Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks made me angry—as angry as I felt four decades ago, when I told our customer at the farmer’s market to beat it.
Soon after, however, I enjoyed a daydream of Mr. Bloomberg wielding a hoe in my fields and working up a sweat as he gained an education in what farmers really do. It made me laugh.
Mayor Bloomberg suffers from the same ignorance that plagues so many people in the developed world. In the United States today, only a tiny fraction of the population needs to work in agriculture to produce the food our country needs. This incredible efficiency is a tremendous blessing that allows millions of people to focus on other professional vocations, such as studying financial data as they eat their lunches in front of Bloomberg Terminals.
It also means that few people understand how much knowledge—or “gray matter,” if you will—goes into something as seemingly simple as producing the lettuce and tomatoes that top their BLT sandwiches.
Go ahead and call me a “farmer,” because that’s what I am. I learned how to farm from my father, as well as from my professors in college, where I earned a degree in horticulture.
But I’m also a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic, a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, and a hundred other things.
Why does a farmer have to be a plumber? Because we irrigate our fields, to make sure our crops get the right amount of water. We fix leaks so we don’t waste resources. This is an essential part of sustainability.
I’m an electrician who repairs electric motors. I’ve wired our barns. I’ve installed panels of fuses and circuit breakers.
I’m a mechanic who fixes tractors and other equipment when it breaks down. I’ve rebuilt engines and installed transmissions. I change my own oil.
I’m a physicist who calibrates weed sprayers and works out complicated “story problems” about nozzle pressure, vehicle speed, and volume per acre.
I’m a chemist who mixes formulas for the crop-protection products that keep our fields clean and our plants protected from pests and disease. I also maintain the freshness of fruits and vegetables as we harvest them, store them, and transport them. This involves proper packaging as well as knowing when to use hydrocoolers and refrigeration.
And I’m a biologist, too, because I know the fundamentals of plant physiology. In addition to digging holes, putting seeds in them, and piling dirt on top, Bloomberg-style, I figure out what crops require in fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, water, and more. Their needs change every year, based on the kinds of seeds we buy, the technologies embedded in them, when and where we plant them, the history of my farm’s production, and the never-predictable weather in a time of climate change.
I could go on, but I don’t want to boast. What I can tell you is, I AM a farmer. And every day I thank God for the scientists and researchers who give us the ability to stay in the forefront of today’s agriculture. And, unlike Mike, farmers get it done every day. Really.
A version of John’s comments was previously published in The Hill on February 25, 2020