In every pursuit these days, “the narrative” seems to be the thing. Tell a story that checks enough of the right boxes in the zeitgeist, the thinking goes, and you can get citizens, taxpayers and consumers to “buy” what you want them to buy.
This is a reality that’s being used against Flyover Country – but one that also provides us with opportunities to flip the script.
As the late French sociologist Jean Baudrillard put it, in the modern era, what we purchase isn’t just a product but also a piece of “language” that helps create a sense of who we are or want to be. That’s why stories that storytellers tell around products – be they a cup of yogurt or a political candidate – may be more powerful than ever, even if their use of facts is demonstrably shaky.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. By now in the post-modern age, everything was supposed to be about data and making rational, unassailable conclusions based on mountains of it.
Well, there’s never been more data than before – the amount of information at our hands is increasing exponentially each day – and yet what is it that moves us as individuals and as a society to make decisions, whether that’s what deodorant to purchase or for whom to vote?
Stories. Narrative arcs. Emotional appeals. Great cinematography using drones. Lilting musical scores. I’m still getting over how popular podcasts are in an era when everything is supposed to be about a set of facts presented in the most efficient way.
This is a reality about human existence in 2021 that we in Flyover Country can exploit. At a time when American society itself seems to be unraveling in so many ways, in the heartland we have one genuine story after another we can tell to appeal to and even to soothe the rest of the country.
Consider agriculture, for example. It’s only taken a few years for the forces of “plant-based” foods to use their narratives about healthfulness, about mistreatment of livestock and about methane emissions to make nutrition based on animal products seem like a bloody vestige of the Middle Ages.
At a time when one new scientific study after another reaffirms the nutritional value of meat, dairy and eggs, often overturning decades of false villainy, the forces of plant nutrition – mostly situated, not coincidentally, on the coasts -- would have us believe that it’s better for you and the world to consume a lab-processed, ersatz-meat Beyond Burger made out of pea proteins, one that “bleeds” with beet juice, than to bite into a Big Mac.
The reality is that traditional agriculture based in Flyover Country is doing a phenomenal job both of producing increasingly healthful foods and of minimizing their environmental impacts, more and more enlisting practices that actually enhance local ecosystems and the global situation.
The climate burden of a glass of milk in the United States is now two-thirds smaller than in 1950. For every bushel of corn produced as American agricultural ingenuity has driven up yields, water usage and energy use has decreased. Since 1980, irrigation water use per bushel has fallen by 46 percent, energy use by 41 percent and greenhouse-gas emissions by 31 percent, according to research by Field to Market, an umbrella group that promotes sustainable agriculture, the Wall Street Journal said.
Consider some farms in Flyover Country that increasingly are models rather than outliers. With a handful of farms in Kansas and Nebraska, McCarty Family Farms, for example, milks nearly 9,000 cows and processes more than 32 million gallons of milk each year. Dependent on the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, which is being rapidly depleted across the Great Plains, the operation flushes manure from barns and recycles the water in lagoons that also supply nutrient-rich supplemental irrigation for crops.
McCarty is reclaiming 65,000 gallons of fresh water a day for cows’ drinking and is transitioning to less water-intensive crops, such as sorghum, for feed. Among many other conservation steps, McCarty continually reclaims almost all of the sand that it uses for cattle bedding.
“It’s a delicate balance,” co-owner Ken McCarty told me. “We still need highly productive crops and still must have highly productive, well-cared-for animals, but we have to try to balance that with the need to be good stewards. Sustainability may not necessarily result in a higher price per unit of finished goods, but we’re finding it can drive down the costs of production and increase your competitiveness.”
What’s more, McCarty Farms’ efforts align it with the sensibilities of modern consumers. The company hired Sustainable Environmental Consultants to certify its environmental steps for both CPG customers, such as Dannon, and consumers, and to translate its achievements into easily understandable metrics that can be used in storytelling -- such as equating McCarty’s carbon reductions with removing a given number of cars from the road.
“Food and beverage companies are becoming very aggressive in the supply chain and looking at ways they can provide the verification to tell the story, so they can capture that information,” John Harsch, president and chief operating officer of the consultancy based in West Des Moines, Iowa, told me. “They are being responsible wanting to make sure the story they’re telling is accurate.”
As for farmers his company works with, Harsch said, “They’re very excited about what they’re doing. They work very hard at reducing erosion and improving soil health as well as being concerned about the economics.”
Meanwhile, near Austin, Texas, Taylor Collins has become a master of the narrative surrounding his huge experiment in “regenerative agriculture.” Collins and his wife, Katie Forrest, founded Epic Provisions several years ago, a better-for-you meat-jerky company that they ended up selling to General Mills. With some of the proceeds and their extra time, they bought 450 acres of old river-bottom land in the Texas Hill Country that had been spent through traditional farming methods.
They determined to restore the land in what they called a “large-scale ecosystem-regeneration process” by putting a herd of bison there, and a flock of turkeys, and a whole bunch of other flora and fauna that, collectively and over time, could return Roam Ranch to more of its original fertile condition. The couple now sells Force of Nature bison cuts raised on the ranch and still consult with General Mills, which recently gained federal organic certification for 34,000 acres of its own land on Gunsmoke Farms near Pierre, South Dakota.
There’s no better sustainability narrative than for meats raised on Roam Ranch, where Collins has registered a 30-percent improvement in soil structure and organic matter since establishing it in 2017, and where calving rates for the bison and the health of the turkey flock also have risen exponentially.
Collins even has switched to what he calls “field harvest” of bison for meat instead of shipping them off for slaughter. “It’s the most low-stress way to take an animal’s life,” he told me. “They’re at home with their best friends, and it’s lights out with a shot to the head, versus putting them on a trailer and stressing them out. You can raise an animal for three years as good as you can and in the last two hours of their life, the texture and flavor can change because of the release of cortisol and adrenalin – especially with bison, which are wild and have retained wild genetics. That’s standard in the bison industry.”
There are more possibilities for wholesome narratives for farmers in Flyover Country than there are for their rivals spawning things from the lab. This applies, for example, to yarns about “local” and “farm-to-table” produce increasingly coming out of hydroponic greenhouses that startup tech companies are situating strategically close to population centers of woke consumers.
“These are charlatans of ‘local produce’ who are taking the mantle of ‘local’ and using it against local farmers who are actually growing products in the soil nearby,” Ken Harris, managing director of Cadent, a major consulting firm for big food companies, said to me. “In many cases it’s not as nutritious and doesn’t taste as good. But they’re putting up huge greenhouses in the suburbs and calling it ‘local.’”
Storytelling is going to continue to win the day when it comes not only to the hearts but also, surprisingly, the minds of American consumers. And out here in Flyover Country, we’ve got plenty of great narratives to tell.