Monday, May 24, 2010

Potlatch & Farm blogs

Potlatch is a ceremony or festival that is performed by the indigenous peoples of the northwest. Most of the ceremonies involve a social gathering and and giving away items of value or elements of wealth. This was used in times past to resolve questions of succession or prestige, and is still in practice today among the tribes.

What strikes most people as odd, and it certainly did the first settlers to encounter this ceremony is that it runs contrary to most of the western thought. There were numerous attempts to outlaw this ceremony, all unsuccessful. Our western process is to accumulate wealth and power, and to keep those items, thereby proving we are both wealthy and powerful. The PNW tribes looked at this differently, and counted prestige by how well they could give away what they had. At times the gift that was given was destroyed on receipt. Sort of conspicuous consumption -- but unlike the western ideal where the consumer benefits, the giver got the benefit, in the form of social standing and prestige.

I started thinking about this while I was having a discussion with another blog author. He's defending a blog author that I've criticized for promoting practices he doesn't seem to follow himself. Here's the relevant quote:

"...has been farming successfully for years and sharing his experiences via blog since 2005. Like us, his only apparent motive was to share so that others could learn from his experiences. I've found him to be very helpful, positive, responsive and constructive at all times. "

"His only apparent motive was to share so that others could learn." Potlatch, web-style. Sharing items of value to increase social standing and prestige. Like the indigenous custom, there is no direct monetary advantage, but there is definitely a social one.

Some of the blog authors (myself included) teach classes in various things; you can find them on their representative blogs, and this is just another form of the same thing, but in most cases the classes are offered for a fee -- sometimes a substantial fee. I was bemused to run across a class that offered to show you farm chores being done with a couple of hours of discussion each day about various topics, for $1,000 or so. Good work if you can get it. (I'm saying this as someone who spent 7 years teaching professionally; I know the teaching gig inside and out; I appreciate this particular blogs marketing savvy. I gotta get people to pay me a thousand bucks to do my chores and talk to them. )

What's oddest about this is that the most vocal farm-blog potlatch people are those who have made their wealth through something other than farming, and have entered farming as their second (or third, or fourth) career. They even talk about how happy they are to eschew their previous life and identify themselves as farmers. I'm not going to post a link here, but I've got two posts on two different blogs in mind when I write this. Somehow the potlatch removes the stain of the dirty money; it glosses over the fact that to run one of these small farms it sometimes takes substantial capital. Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

You're a more legitimate farm blog if you publicly deny any benefit from the farm blog. But I can't think of a single farm that doesn't benefit from the advertising or increased prices. One pig farmer who blogs proudly states that he gets $200 for mixed-breed piglets, where his local craigslist lists them from a variety of producers for $90. How to explain the 100+% markup except for the blog? Social status has its rewards.

And heaven help you if you criticize one of these guys; it's like you're questioning the infallibility of the pope, no matter how ridiculous their statements are. Eccentricity is tolerated, widely tolerated. Social status at work, again.

Some of the blogs out there are contemplative; a diary of the daily events, but I'm seeing more and more of these potlatch blogs, each one vying for "the greenest" or "the most righteous" or "the most anti-factory-farming". They'll even criticize other blogs or small farm practices in a circumspect sort of way. "Are troughs inhumane? Forcing an animal to drink out of a container might harm them!!" Heck, you'll find entries on these blogs contrasting "our" farm (and blog) with other farms and blogs; the assumption being that we're all dying to know the differences between the two.

To me it sounds a lot like Lutherans trying to explain why (how) they're different than Methodists to an audience of Buddhists. Not many people care, but the general topic shows up over and over again on various blogs. It's self-absorbed and a bit odd to me, but I must admit its entertaining. Maybe not in the way that the author intended.

So if this sounds like your blog, well, don't take it personally.


Anonymous said...


Photobby said...

Well said. I see the same thing all the time in the "photo blog" business. Precious few really hold honest Potlatches (one is a local guy, a true gem).
I am in the (bad) habit of following lots of blogs. I will often drift away if they seem to be selling stuff. I don't mind a little add banner if the content is worth while, but it's frustrating when there is no content and lots of stuff for sale.
Or worse yet, they are trying to justify their massively higher prices without real proof. It's like s mediocre photographer charging way more than they are worth because their brother is some kind of rock star photographer.

Anonymous said...

I smiled when you mentioned the well financed farms. My husband who works full time as a paramedic and I run a small family farm. We sometimes muse at the idea of the farmer who has nary an idea what it is to feel the strain of paycheck to paycheck living/farming. It would be great if the information and knowledge of this new generation of enlightened could find its way into the education of the next generation of farmers through 4H or FFA or perhaps a new organiztion the is not in the pocket of the USDA.

Bruce King said...

Had to laugh a bit today. I got banned from a farm blog, presumably for this post.

I think that supporting the local 4H or FFA or other organizations is a great way to potlatch. I offer a discount to FFA or 4H kids for my weaner pigs, but I should probably go whole-hog and sponsor one.

Rich said...

I read the comment on the other blog that apparently got you banned (whatever that means) and tend to agree with the point you were trying to make. Selling layer roosters at a loss just to try to make a point is nuts (and I don't believe that they could sell 400-500 roosters).

What is even more ridiculous is for someone with 2 or 3 years "experience" to actually think they can teach people how to run a profitable farm. It takes more than wearing a battered cowboy hat while posing for pictures that mimic Salatin's publicity photos and shooting videos in the same style as a Polyface video to have the experience to teach people how to be a successful farmer.

I don't see how most farms can have an endless stream of interns doing the actual work, ongoing "classes" about "sustainable" farming defrauding wannabe farmers, and a blog that is "transparent" until questions are actually raised about the practices of the farm.

Bruce King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce King said...

That particular blog seems to invite controversy ("are troughs inhumane" was my made-up title, but you'll see several where it's clear he'd like a fight. As soon as theres substantive discussion of whatever topic he orginates he cuts it off. He claims to be open, but is the opposite, in my experience. Here's a quote from email about the same blog:
"I recently saw your post on the xxx Farm blog topic - xxx. I wanted let you know that xxxx contrary to their statement, do not publish all comments on their blog, and did indeed choose not to post my last comment on the topic. And now I see, that since others have questioned their practices in this instance, they have closed the topic to further comments.

If you are truly interested in the humane care and treatment of animals I will be happy to explain how it is that and animal could be treated for a condition and then marketed through alternative avenues, as I suggested they could have done in my post. It is certainly not difficult. It is also extremely unfair and unethical to call someone's practices into question and then not allow them the opportunity to respond."

What's funny is that the blog author in question offered that particular post as one he'd be open about. Here's the quote from him:

"...In short, I guess I don’t like it when people comment unconstructively or rudely to what we’ve done, because who are they to do so? But I do encourage them to post their feelings/experiences, even when they strongly disagree. Just look at the post we did last year about xxxx to see the 30 odd comments mainly in strong opposition to our approach."

So in a topic he offers as being open, there's at least a couple of people he's not publishing from. When people disagree with you it can be rude, but I know that my comment was not. It just wasn't on the topic he wanted to cover, so end of discussion.

In my book that's intellectually dishonest. If you start a fight you should be willing to stick it out. If your arguments are good, they'll stand.

sheila said...

Several responses come to mind...

I grew up on a farm so the idea that $1,000 weekend event will teach you how to farm is hilarious to me. PT Barnum said there's a sucker born every minute. Some things never change.

I think everyone has a right to charge whatever they want and I have the right to pass that deal up.

Anyone that wants to farm needs to take in all the information available and and decide what works for their conditions. They also better learn pretty quickly from their mistakes or else adopt some rich relatives to bail them out. Farming is not very forgiving.

Anonymous said...

you guys love to complain.

Jason said...

I enjoy when you write about farming. When you start talking trash and slamming other people, it's pointless for me to read this. If you think you are so much better than these other people, than why do you stoop to their level and write in the same style that you are slamming. To me it seems a little hypocritical, immature and it's a downer in my day when I just enjoy reading about farming. Hope you get back to talking about meat in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Same here

Not the previous Jason said...

So are you better than these other farm blogs because you didn't use "dirty money" to get started?
Oh wait. You had a substantial investment from off-the-farm income or savings to get started, and, I assume, to fund your recent expansions.
Or is it because you share freely without any expectation of "social status?"
No. I think we all know that without some benefit, a farm blog is just a waste of time.
Maybe it's because you don't enjoy the benefit of status that allows you to charge greater than market prices for your product?
No. You loudly preach the necessity of charging a price that provides you a fair wage.
No you must be better than them because you wouldn't stoop to comparing yourself to other farmers in order to stir controversy as if all your readers were dying to know the differences. You would never try to vie for "the most righteous" farm blog.
Oh wait...

I'm not defending these other farm-bloggers that you are criticizing. I read both of the other blogs, and I'll admit to scratching my head at some of their practices as well. But your claim (made in other posts and in comments on other blogs) that calling them out is an altruistic desire to defend new farmers that might copy their model with disastrous results, sounds so disingenuous as to be laughable. No one's buying it.
You're not even competing for customers with these folks, so what's the deal?

As an engineer as well, I can understand the need to correct people when they're wrong. Heck, I can even understand the engineer's propensity to defend one's status as smartest man on the planet and sole arbiter of truth -- a practice all too common in the engineering field. But when you criticize others for doing what you are doing (e.g. comparing your farm/blog to others) under the auspices of altruism and "watching out for the new-guy", it smacks of hypocrisy and hubris.
My guess is that you'd have trouble articulating exactly why you feel such a need to "expose the truth" about these "big, bad, deceptive, and morally reprehensible 'sustainable' farm-bloggers." Why do you do it?

Bruce, I really like your blog. It has been a great source of information, not to mention inspiration, to me, and I love your analytical approach and attempts to quantify and test what others mostly guess at. What I don't like are your sophomoric pissing matches of one-upsmanship. Farm and let farm, I say. And let the customer (and the new-guy) educate themselves and purchase from whom they most agree with -- IMO the best use of the farm-blog.

Note: Why do I call you out for calling others out? 1) Because you asked for/allow comments, so I voiced my opinion. 2) I like to hear about your farming practices not one-sided rants about how others are wrong. 3) No one had done an adequate job (IMO) of pointing out the irony and hypocrisy in your post.
Unfortunately, I'll never get back the time it took to wrote. See? I do understand having to correct people -- even on the internet. :)

Mike said...

Wow! Such thoughful responses. I love your blog and really enjoy reading your posts about farming. The ten acre pasture with all the different parts and posts was very enlightening. The point your at in your farming career is where I hope to be some day. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us because I can honestly say I learn something new everytime I visit your page.