CONVERSATIONS ACROSS THE DIVIDEHow do we form a more perfect union—or at least find enough common ground for a civil conversation? Breaking out of red-blue stereotypes is a good place to start. And listening to the hopes and fears that lie beneath the rhetoric. Respect helps, along with the expectation of transformation—our own as well as our adversaries’.
It started with a lawn sign war. It was 2000. I was 16, and sold on Ralph Nader, even though I couldn’t actually vote. I staked a Nader lawn sign in front of my parents’ house. It was quickly stashed in the garage. I put it out again. And again, back to the garage. Dad was rooting for Bush.
I never really felt like my politics fit in my family. There was my conversion to vegetarianism (the same as “communism” in Dad’s book), my stance against President Bush and the Iraq War, and my growing commitment to environmental work. Dad griped that I was becoming one of “those radical environmentalists.”
So when my father called a few years ago to ask me about this whole organics thing, I was confused. He asked, did I buy organic? Where did I shop? I was a college student at the time, so the answers were “When I can afford to” and “The closest grocery store to campus.”
I was sort of flattered that Dad thought of me as his de facto source of information about the young and eco-minded. Turns out he’d been reading in agricultural trade publications that organics were the next big thing. My father, though not always in tune with the latest on the environmental front, was ever a savvy businessman: He wanted in.
I’ve always figured myself the political outsider in the family. After graduating, I moved to the city and took a job as an environmental reporter, and became a bike-riding, Whole Foods-shopping urbanite. I got as far away from the farm as possible. So at first it seemed almost an affront for Dad to be venturing into what I considered my rebellion.
My father, Thomas Sheppard, has been a farmer since he was old enough to wield a shovel. Actually, since before he was even born. The Sheppards came to what would become the United States from England in 1683, and promptly put down roots in Cumberland County, New Jersey. The first four Sheppard brothers arrived in the New World and started a subsistence farm about two miles from where my father and his brothers, Erwin and David, farm today in a town called Cedarville. My great-grandfather Gilbert procured the first tractor in Cedarville, a Case steam tractor, some time during the 1920s.
Today the Sheppard brothers farm 1,500 acres of lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, asparagus, and squash on one of the last vestiges of garden in the Garden State. And for my whole life—and as long as my father can remember, too—they’ve grown everything “conventional.” Now, back when the first Sheppard brothers arrived, “conventional” probably meant horse-drawn plows and cow manure. But in our backward lexicon, it’s come to indicate the use of very unconventional methods: petrochemical fertilizers, diesel tractors, and genetically modified plants.
|Thomas Sheppard in 1988 with Kate and her baby brother Alex.|
Given that the brothers, along with everyone in the country for the most part, have become accustomed to fossil-fuel and chemical-intensive methods of growing food, I was surprised that my father was willing to venture into organics. Dad’s a farmer, businessman, life-long Republican, and two-time Bush voter who drives one of those massive, gas-guzzling pickup trucks. In our town of 2,000, he’s a member of the three-person town council, and the three of them take turns being mayor. It’s his turn right now.
I’ve always figured myself the political outsider in the family. After graduating, I moved to the city and took a job as an environmental reporter, and became a bike-riding, Whole Foods-shopping urbanite. I got as far away from the farm as possible. So at first it seemed almost an affront for Dad to be venturing into what I considered my rebellion. What do you want here, old man?
But a visit home a few years later tipped me off to the possibility that we might agree on more than I’d thought. A new shopping complex was being built a few towns over, one of those strip malls of big box stores and acres of parking. It was going up right where a farm had been when I was younger. I asked Dad about it, and we shared an eye roll. “They’re taking all this space in the country for these mega stores,” said Dad. “We’re going to have three Wal-Marts in Cumberland County. What the hell do we need three Wal-Marts for?” Our county has less than 150,000 people. Not much to disagree with there. I didn’t expect to hear Dad espousing anti-corporate sentiment, and it felt good to have something to bond over.
It touched a deep nerve within me. Each time I go home, the suburbs of Philadelphia sprawl farther and farther into South Jersey, taking over land that was farms only months before. I can’t help but mourn the lost history and culture of rural America, even though I’ve moved away. And imagine how Dad must feel. It’s not just history for him; it’s his livelihood. Dad says farmers in the area have been selling their land because of the congestion and development. “There was so much traffic around they couldn’t get equipment up the road,” he says.
Regardless of political affiliation, farmers remain the closest Americans to the earth. Though I write about these issues every day, I can’t really understand the impacts of today’s environmental problems like farmers do—decreasing open space, sprawl, shifting weather patterns, droughts, floods, invasive species. These long-term hazards to humankind are much more immediate threats to the livelihood of folks like Dad, so caring about them isn’t as much a political issue as a matter of necessity.
But how often we “environmentalists,” and the political Left in general, forget this. How much we confine ourselves by writing off these folks as party-line Republicans.
In recent years, the realities of the agricultural economy have increasingly led Dad across the political line. There’s the increase in fuel costs: My family’s farm consumes 1,000 gallons of diesel every week during the growing season, guzzled by the tractors, combines, and tractor-trailers that haul the vegetables to grocery stores along the East Coast. And while the farm used to grow lettuce that would be sold locally, it now has to compete with giant farms on the other side of the continent, and other continents.
Organics give small farms like Dad’s a niche in the large chain grocery stores, and an “in” with rapidly expanding “natural” markets like Whole Foods. The strategy seems to be working—I spotted Sheppard Farms asparagus in a Whole Foods for the first time just a few weeks ago.
Of course, Dad and his brothers have had a lot to learn as they’ve greened the farm. Classes in organics didn’t really exist when the three of them attended Cornell University’s agricultural program, one of the best in the country. Right now they have only 40 organic acres out of 1,500, and they’re trying to learn how to get better yields out of them, and how to expand. “They say as you get deeper into organics, you’ll reap more benefits as the soil gets further away from the time that chemicals were used. It will have time to recover,” says Dad. “That could be just urban legend. Er, rural legend.”
The next big project he’s hoping to tackle is greening the farm’s energy supply. The farm is located along the Delaware Bay, and bay breezes lend great potential for wind energy. Dad hopes the wind turbines could be a source of income.
He’s also considering investing in solar panels, which could bring the farm’s energy costs down from 16 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour right away. He’s even thinking about lobbying to get the town to go solar.
“We could put solar panels on the new firehouse,” says Dad, “change those natural gas heaters to electric heaters and produce our own. That might be the more economical and more environmentally friendly thing to do.” I never expected to hear the phrase “environmentally friendly” coming out of Dad’s mouth.
But Congress keeps stalling on an extension of the tax credits for renewable energy, which are set to expire at the end of the year, and the lack of market assurance right now has put the solar industry in a holding pattern. I cover this action day-to-day on the Hill, so Dad called recently to find out how his representative, Frank LoBiondo, had voted on the extensions.
I assumed, based on party affiliation alone, that he’d voted against them. I was wrong. I guess that shows my own political biases. Dad said he’d call anyway, just to make sure LoBiondo knew how important these extensions are. It was the first time I’d heard Dad talk about calling his legislator about an environmental issue, so I was pumped. Isn’t this what I spend my life working on—giving citizens the information they need to push for political reforms?
Tough economic times have made him more politically active in other areas as well. New Jersey has been in dire financial straits for quite a while, and this winter, the governor proposed total elimination of the state’s Department of Agriculture. That, of course, angered my father and the other remaining vestiges of the agricultural community in the state. Dad bussed to the capitol to protest. Other farmers brought goats and tractors, creating quite a scene in Trenton. Considering he’s made fun of me for protesting the Iraq War, it was funny to see Dad on his first political march. And the farmers won: The governor backed off the proposal.
The farming experience has made him break from the party line in other areas as well—like immigration. Dad says the country’s immigration policies are both mistreating immigrants and imperiling the domestic agricultural sector. He understands this, since the farm relies heavily on immigrant workers, mostly from Mexico.
“The Sheppards never had any green cards,” he adds. In Dad’s book, if the first Sheppards rolled off the boat without permission to be here, who are we to tell others they don’t have the same right? Many of the men and women Dad hires were farmers back home in Mexico, too, but hard economic times forced them to come to the U.S. A few years ago, Dad even went to visit a village in Mexico that a lot of his workers call home, wanting to see where these folks are from.
I told him recently that I think he’s slowly becoming a liberal, whether he likes it or not.
“I think it’s more being a fiscal conservative,” Dad said. “I would say I’m a fiscal conservative and socially liberal.”
I asked him whether he’d vote for Bush a third time.
“Oh, hell no,” he retorted.
“Dad, how’d I come out a liberal?” I asked.
“I was more liberal when I was your age,” he said.
I might argue that he’s migrating back that direction, from a Bush-hugger to a treehugger. But in recent years I’ve realized that a lot of my beliefs aren’t in spite of where and how I grew up—they’re because of it. I care about the land because it’s from the land that my family makes a living. I care about food sources and security because I never had to think twice about where mine came from growing up—I could just walk out back and pick a tomato or a pepper. I care about open space and clean water and air because I can’t imagine a childhood without them.
And so does Dad. Even if we may never agree on a lawn sign.