The Agtivist

by Published on
Photos by Jen Reel
Judith and Michael McGeary administer a homeopathic treatment to a sheep with a hoof injury.

Agtivist (ag-ti-vist) n. one who fights for food freedom—inscription on a Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance T-shirt.

In Judith McGeary’s second year of farming—before she learned how to deter predators—coyotes and dogs killed more than 100 of her chickens. McGeary didn’t grow up farming. She chose it eight years ago, joining the ranks of “hobby” farmers and others who have entered the field to protect the environment and improve the quality of the food we eat.

Today, she is a farmer and an advocate. She lives on a 165-acre farm near Cameron, where she and her husband Mike raise sheep, chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys, horses and cows. And she is founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), an 800-member organization that advocates for small, sustainable farmers.

“A lot of activists fail because they focus on big goals and lofty ideals,” she told an eclectic group of ranchers, raw milk drinkers and urban farmers gathered for a session on lobbying at the alliance’s national conference in San Antonio in September. “The goals need to be specific and attainable.”

It was a glimpse of the pragmatism McGeary has honed in her journey from biologist to lawyer to farmer and advocate. The pragmatism explains how she has assembled an unlikely coalition of activists who have little in common except their support for sustainable farms—and often come from opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum. The alliance encompasses ranchers who shun government intrusion and organic farmers and sustainability advocates who champion the environment.

Founded in 2006, FARFA could be described as the political wing of your local farmers market. Such markets have grown in popularity, alongside demand for sustainable food—produce, meat and eggs that are local, organic and humanely produced. In the past decade, public conversation about the environmental and health impacts of food has led more people to choose local melons over South American mangoes and grass-fed beef over fast-food burgers. Yet despite the demand from informed consumers, sustainable food can be difficult to bring to market. The alliance argues that this is due to years of one-size-fits-all agriculture policies that favor large agribusiness over small farmers. McGeary wants to level the playing field.

“The great thing about Judith is she’s ranching and advocating,” says Erin Flynn, co-owner of Austin’s Green Gate Farms and an alliance member. “She’s capable of running in the good-old-boy circles and the sustainable circles.”

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The land near Cameron where the McGeary farm sits is dotted with mesquite and oak, and brown and parched from the drought. When it rained recently, an ebullient McGeary flung her head back, holding her face up to the sky.

While the farm made a small profit last year, money isn’t her primary motivation. “It was much more about, ‘Let’s put some of what we believe into practice,’” she says. “We were buying raw milk. We’d started buying from local farmers ourselves. [We thought] let’s take some of these principles we have and start putting them into place on the land we own.”

The couple’s house is partially powered by solar energy. They get their water from rain catchments on the roof of the house and a nearby shed.

She acknowledges that “It’s difficult when you come into farming without a farming background and with an ideology, because farming is inherently practical, not ideological.” Yet it was ideology that led city-bred McGeary into farming.

The daughter of math professors, she grew up in Dallas in a home that prized academics, logic and debate. She attended a rigorous Orthodox Jewish day school and the local public high school before majoring in biology at Stanford. Her only exposure to livestock was at the stables across the street from her preschool. The experience inspired a lifelong interest in riding.

Initially planning to become a veterinarian, McGeary switched her focus to environmental law at Stanford and later earned a full scholarship to the University of Texas School of Law. She clerked for Justice Thomas Reavley on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and worked for small firms in Austin and Alabama. Then she had a pivotal conversation with UT biologist Dick Richardson about holistic management, an approach to land management that imitates the natural ecosystem’s relationships among soil, plants and animals. The two were discussing McGeary’s decision to return to school to become an environmental consultant. “Dick said, ‘If you care about the environment, you need to care where your food comes from,”’ McGeary recalls.

Richardson introduced her to Acres USA, a magazine covering commercial-scale organic and sustainable agriculture, and literature about holistic management. If done right, he suggested, agriculture could be a force for environmental good. The idea contrasted with McGeary’s “typical environmentalist view of agriculture”—that land is best left untouched by human activity, and that agriculture is, at best, a necessary evil.

Holistic management involves “making changes on the land that, frankly, most environmentalists could only dream of,” she says. “It’s not preserving land that hasn’t been spoiled, it’s taking land that has been ruined by people and restoring it.”

McGeary bought her land southeast of Austin in the late 1990s, right after law school, planning to raise horses. In 2002, when she and Mike returned to Austin after a stint in Alabama, they threw themselves into rehabilitating the farm’s soil, using holistic management techniques such as compost tea—an extract from compost that is steeped in water and contains nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. They watched in amazement as a hay field that for years had been managed with conventional herbicides and fertilizers developed richer, water-retaining soil and became more productive.

While some aspects of farming were new to McGeary, who was still practicing law part time, many of the daily chores resembled work she’d done with horses for years. “I was used to getting dirt under my fingernails and being around manure,” she says.

The McGearys started raising chickens and sheep, and she began a master’s program in geography at UT-Austin with the aim of becoming a sustainable agriculture consultant. Rather than work for the Environmental Defense Fund or the Sierra Club, as she’d originally envisioned, McGeary planned to help farmers trade chemical techniques for holistic alternatives and make agriculture a positive force, one farm at a time.

Then came animal ID.

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By December 2005, the McGearys were several years into their farming operation. So when they learned of the USDA’s plan to implement a National Animal Identification System (NAIS), the issue hit home. That winter they set up a foaling stall in the barn for their sheep to give birth. They watched for several quiet hours as the lambs, the size of house cats, emerged with wet coats that dried into pure white ringlets. As the lambs began to nurse, their tiny tails wagged furiously.

“We both thought there was something inherently wrong in viewing this animal as just a number,” she says.

NAIS was intended to track the movement of livestock and poultry, using electronic tags, to stop the spread of disease. Groups of animals who remained together from birth to death—the management style of large or factory farms—could be assigned a single tracking number on paper. But for smaller farms, where animals might join and leave the herd (or flock) at different times, each animal would need its own number and tag. Keeping track of individual animals, McGeary feared, would be prohibitively expensive for small farmers who already lacked their larger counterparts’ economies of scale.

McGeary and her allies didn’t scoff at livestock diseases. They criticized the ID system because it didn’t prevent or even test for diseases, only traced their spread. The crowded conditions and overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, the smaller farmers argued, were the real incubators of diseases. They also feared that time and money spent satisfying the ID requirements would drive them out of business. While precise costs were hard to define, some estimates put the price of ear tags, applicators, tag readers and labor for beef cattle at $25 to $50 per animal—close to the typical profit per head. A 2009 Kansas State University study calculated costs of less than $10 per cow, but projected higher costs per cow for the smallest farmers, the type the alliance represents.

State Rep. Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon, who introduced the 2005 bill outlining the Texas version of NAIS, says the state’s large livestock population makes such a measure necessary. “To continue to have the safest, cheapest food supply in the world, we have to fine-tune government regulations as we go,” he said. “Animal ID was part of that fine-tuning.” Hardcastle, chair of the House Agriculture & Livestock Committee, said in a recent interview that he wrote the bill to give Texas the power to craft its own rules in the event of a federal mandate for animal identification.

Impatient with the wait-and-see response of other advocacy groups, McGeary and members of the organic community decided to form a new 501(c)(4) organization that could lobby against the proposal and work on other issues relevant to sustainable agriculture. She took a six-month leave of absence from her law firm. She has yet to return. While the Texas Legislature passed Hardcastle’s bill, paving the way for a state ID program, the federal mandate has yet to appear. Negative feedback from farmers nationwide appears to have blocked it.

Since then, FARFA’s mission has expanded to include water issues and opposition to genetically modified crops. The alliance supported a successful amendment to last year’s federal Food Safety Bill that exempts small producers who sell at farmers markets or local grocers from new federal safety requirements. These laws are meant to prevent contamination at larger food manufacturers that mix produce or eggs from multiple farms and ship them to multiple stores. The alliance also backed an unsuccessful bill in the 2011 Texas legislative session that would have increased public access to raw milk.

“So many regulations are built to favor large agro-industrial operations,” says Pati Jacobs, co-owner of Bastrop Cattle Company, who ran unsuccessfully last year for state representative in District 17, which includes Bastrop, Giddings and La Grange. She points to a law that, beginning in 2012, will mandate testing batches of hamburger for E. coli contamination. Because her cattle are processed at a small slaughterhouse that kills and processes one animal at a time, each cow’s hamburger is a separate “batch,” requiring its own $35 test. Larger producers, which slaughter hundreds of cows per day, create batches of hamburger from multiple animals, and can run a single test on the entire batch.

In addition, Jacobs says, procedures at small slaughterhouses reduce the likelihood of E. coli contamination in the first place by letting animals void their intestines before slaughter, and then individually inspecting each carcass and cutting out any trace of manure.

Jacobs likens the uneven burden of such regulations to a sledgehammer. “The sledgehammer may work on the big producers,” she says, “but it just squashes the little producers.”

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These days, McGeary spends her time building coalitions among groups that agree on agriculture issues. She learned from her experience organizing against the national ID system. Not long after McGeary, a self-described liberal environmentalist, began the campaign against the federal proposal, she was contacted by Henry Lamb, a writer for the right-wing WorldNetDaily. Readers of the website opposed the proposal for privacy and property-rights reasons. McGeary and Lamb didn’t agree on much else, but they forged a partnership that expanded the anti-ID coalition.

“We’re in a unique position in that we started the organization with a pretty clear statement that we weren’t going to side with the left wing or right wing, property rights or environmentalists,” McGeary says. She’s worked with the Organic Consumers Association, whose mission includes campaigning for “justice, peace and democracy,” and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, fifth-generation ranchers who sell to the conventional beef market.

In the process of breaking down barriers between organizations, McGeary has broken her own attachment to the label “liberal.”

“I still hold the liberal belief that government can do good, that there is a role for government in structuring society and providing positive benefits,” she says. “Where I’ve gone away from the common liberal perspective is I think that government tends to do that very badly, especially as it gets bigger. It loses touch with the people it’s involved with. It’s very hard to do good [agricultural] regulation when you can’t be face to face, when you can’t get out on the dirt.”

While McGeary’s entrance into farming was driven by environmentalism, some career farmers and ranchers are wary of the “environmentalist” label because in their view it connotes outsiders telling them what to do. Washington lobbyists for the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy care about the land, but their approach may be different from that of seasoned farmers.

Other farmers and ranchers have reclaimed the label to emphasize their role in stewarding the land. Ron Freeman, a FARFA board member and fourth-generation Illinois cattleman, uses holistic techniques on his 600 acres. While Freeman began his career using the chemical methods that his father and peers employed, he now eschews commercial fertilizers, supplemental feeds, insecticides, herbicides and vaccination regimes.

Freeman says McGeary’s strength is her awareness of the importance of pitching a big tent, particularly since her own roots in agriculture aren’t deep.

“She’s a brilliant-enough woman to realize she needs people sitting on the board that bring in different perspectives, including long-term experience,” he says, noting that part-time or hobby farmers might agree with full-time farmers on the issues but have different levels of investment in outcomes.

Freeman says his switch to holistic management has been profitable, but Rep. Hardcastle, who raises cattle, has run a chemical fertilizer business, and also describes himself as an environmentalist, questions whether such an approach can efficiently fulfill consumer demand.

“Most of my district and a huge majority of the state are commercial farm and ranch operations. They’re looking for maximum production out of how many acres they’ve got,” he says. That, he adds, may require chemical pesticide or fertilizer.

“If you look at the organic meat market, it makes up less than 2 percent of the total meat market in the United States because it costs so much more to raise organic beef,” he explains. “Folks in the grocery store will walk past an organic, grass-fed steak to buy a normal one. It’s the market demand.”

 

Demand is shifting. USDA records show a 17-percent increase nationwide over the last year in the number of farmers markets. The number of community-supported agriculture programs, by which members receive a weekly share of locally grown produce in exchange for an investment in a farm, has risen from fewer than 100 in the 1990s to more than 4,000 today. These changes point to a shift in public awareness that bodes well for McGeary’s alliance, especially if educated, urban consumers continue to look beyond their food to the policies affecting farmers.

McGeary is encouraged by people who visit farmers markets for the first time after watching documentaries like Food, Inc. and Fresh, but she knows this is frequently where the action stops. Her biggest adversary is an “all or nothing” attitude about activism, she says.

“I’ve had so many people over the years say things like, ‘We need something like the civil rights movement of the ’60s’—as if the civil rights movement just happened. [As though] thousands of people became activists all at the same time, just spontaneously.

“We’re trying to build something like that. You build it a group at a time. You build momentum. … People are waiting for a big movement and not realizing that the big movement doesn’t happen if you wait.”

At the alliance conference in September, Erin Flynn discussed regulations affecting locally produced foods. Flynn, who got involved with FARFA out of frustration with water issues, is now a member of Austin’s Sustainable Food Policy Board and a founding member of the Growers Alliance of Central Texas, whose aims include amplifying the voice of farmers in public affairs.

“Too many of us think of ourselves as consumers. It’s very different from thinking of yourself as a citizen,” Flynn says. “If you think of yourself as a citizen, you’re supposed to vote. [Judith] reminds people they are citizens.”

Freelance writer Robyn Ross lives in Austin. 

Freelance writer Robyn Ross lives in Austin.