Our Heroes: Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now!

Food Democracy Now!

Dave Murphy is up to his neck in ag policy issues—and that’s a lot considering he’s 6'5”. The native Iowan is a founder of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots community on a mission to establish a sustainable food system in order to address the problems created by industrial agriculture.  When I called Dave, he was waiting anxiously by the phone for word from Des Moines, Iowa on the state’s ag-gag bill that that many believe is an attempt by agribusiness to hide inhumane and harmful factory farm practices from the public. Dave gave me the inside scoop on the bill and the details of his plan of attack. He was also waiting on word from Washington regarding a piece of legislation that would regulate antibiotic use. Life is full of 16 to 20 hour work days for Dave—you can call it an obsession, but Dave knows the power of the sustainable agriculture movement—and he knows exactly how to harvest it.

How did Food Democracy Now! start?

Basically it started with a conversation between friends. In 2006 I became pretty frustrated with how legislators were not responsive to the needs of the average citizen. I met Paul Willis [hog farmer, Manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company and owner and operator of the Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa] and some others, one of who was Lisa Stokke [co-founder and associate director for Food Democracy Now!] and we reserved the URL for Food Democracy Now! in the summer of 2007. In 2007 and 2008 I worked very closely with Democratic candidates in Iowa trying to get sustainable agriculture ideas in front of their policy teams.  I tried to get them to implement ideas that would be more beneficial to family farmers and sustainable ag practices. About a month before the election, Aaron Woolf [director and producer of King Corn] called me and said I think we really need something, a website or forum, where we can talk about these cultural issues on a national level but from a Midwestern standpoint but try to explain these issues to a larger urban audience and legislators.

I emailed Paul and said we should set up a call with the Obama transition team about why they had to pay attention to sustainable ag and the growing local food movement. It was him, myself, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Dan Imhoff and some others. Paul, Lisa and I felt that it was important that a very progressive slate was recommended for positions at the USDA and because of that I came up with a list of six people that should be considered for secretary of agriculture with an understanding that those people had a background in sustainable agriculture and had grassroots understanding of the issue. Then I knew, they're going to have a conference call, they're going to be polite and listen to us and then they're going to put our list in a filing bin and pay no attention. So then I thought maybe if we put the list online for people to sign in support of, we can show that these people have a broader base constituency. That was right before Thanksgiving and we had seven to ten people who signed it right away, then by December we put the letter online and within a week we had like 55,000 signatures.

I've been in politics for over 20 years. Politics is really my first love, more than anything else. And I'm a former conservative republican. When I was in college I was an editor of the Dartmouth Review which was the original conservative college newspaper.  I was a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. So I know how the other team plays ball. This was our opportunity to come up with a plan and strategy to influence the administration to make really solid choices, to have people in office that have at least an understanding of how sustainable agriculture works and why it’s important.

So really, it all started when Paul, Lisa, Aaron and I got together and talked about the fact that Iowa has been plowed under, that our state legislature had really never written any rules to protect farmers or the environment. Living in these small town communities, we talk about the local food movement, and it’s something we have a great deal of hope for as well as desperation when it comes to what it means for health and also for farmers.

We know that you grew up in Iowa and left for a while, and then came back. You've said that you never thought farming was your calling—what exactly led you back to agriculture?

I was raised a conservative republican and evangelical. If I was sick on a Sunday I had to watch Jerry Falwell. I knew neo-cons when they were larva and I didn’t like their close-minded attitude. And I figured out in college that I wanted to write fiction and then I got my MFA writing fiction from Columbia. I moved down to Washington DC and then I eventually got a job at the department of labor. I got a call in June 2006 from my sister who lived on a farm with her husband and four kids and she was frantic saying “You're not going to believe this: they're going to build a 5,000-head hog confinement half a mile from my farm.” It’s an environmentally sensitive watershed, she has four kids and her two youngest boys have severe asthma. So I did some research and wrote some things for her. I helped her get through town hall meetings she would speak at. She said that after these meetings were over, these farmers in the area would intimidate her and be angry with her at the fact that she was trying to stop this one “farmer” – I mean this guy wasn’t really a farmer; he owns a gravel extraction business, so he owns land in that area. She kept asking me to come home, and I said I can’t really do that, I have loans to pay. And about six weeks later my dad called, and my dad is a very conservative, fiscally responsible guy, and goes, “Well you know, can you come home? We're going to need you.” I had a job, was paying my bills and student loans, I had a girlfriend there and we had a house together, so I figured I'd come back there after two months and forget about it. Needless to say that did not happen.

So I got back [to Iowa], and took a look at the situation politically. Republicans have always been for hog confinements and against any laws allowing for local elected officials to have a say as to where these hog confinements are in the county or community. Democrats had always basically run on the idea that local control was a good idea. So in 2006, Iowans elected a democratic governor and they won the house and senate. It seemed like we would get something we'd been fighting for for 15 years: local control and for county officials to have some direct authority over CAFOs. So I stayed in Iowa and worked in the Iowa legislature. So then Iowa democratic leadership refused to allow a vote on local control. Even though several bills were on the table in the house and senate, they still failed to really push for local control. And the governor failed to push for it.

Basically, I stayed in Iowa because I was outraged because of the lack of democratic input that rural Iowans had in terms of how these buildings, these factory farms, were going to be placed in our communities. I saw how every time one of these buildings was going to be built in a community, 90% to 95% of people in that town were against it.  Yet every time it got proposed, despite the objections of people in that community, the local officials always approved it because they did not have any reasonable authority to oppose it. So there is major loss of democratic rights here in Iowa, and I think more than anything that’s what keeps me involved.

Here’s a question that stems from the curiosity of a food advocate working in NYC—what is it like to be in your line of work in the Midwest?

The opportunities and the challenges in rural and urban America are the same. I lived in New York for five years, a block south of Harlem for year, and I would say there is no difference in terms of what we're fighting for. The minor details might differ, but it’s about access to healthy food; it’s about having your rights as a democratic citizen in the United States of America being respected or being trampled upon by multinational corporations and about your elected representatives either going along with that or standing up for you. The problems that are impacting inner city mothers are the same problems that are affecting mothers in small towns in Iowa – access to healthy fruits and vegetables and foods that aren’t processed; having grocery stores where you can buy healthy food for your family outside of the ubiquitous nature of fast food chains everywhere.

You've said that it’s important to turn the battlefield from being on moral grounds to economic ones—why is this the road to take?

I think every issue that we work on is a moral issue and the same is true on budget choices. Those are moral decisions that they're making in Washington. Who gets what amount of money to pay for what, whether tax breaks go to large corporations, or smaller business on main street, or families, or if it’s an extra six cents for school lunch. Those are ultimately moral decisions. When I said that I'm certainly aware of that fact, I think it’s important for people in our movement to realize that people who are farming are doing it to make a living. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a business. I would say the moral and economic arguments are on our side.  If you produce local, regional food economies, they are going to have an added economic benefit and a more rich economic life than any type of commodity agriculture based on high concentration and monopolies. Dozens of studies prove that if you have Walmart or a big box store, that dollar only turns around in the economy one or two times. Less than two times in the local economy. But if you have a local business or local farmer paying people in the town to work for him, that dollar turns around in the community seven times. Now that’s an important economic factor that local economies have that industrial agriculture can never replicate.

How do grassroots organizing and big-media type strategies intersect and what are the advantages of this collaboration?

I just think that it’s vital. We have 250,000 people that are members of Food Democracy Now!, more than a quarter million farmers and American citizens that that we can reach when an important issue comes up and their voice can make a difference. I think it’s vitally important to be able to broadcast info, whether it’s a call to action, or a problem, to as many people as possible to call them to the table to express their voice. It can make people aware of what’s happening in one community and have it broadcast around the world. One of the reasons we started Food Democracy Now! was to have a group from the Midwest, specifically in Iowa, because the power agribusiness has here, and because what happens in Iowa doesn’t stay in Iowa – it impacts people in Brooklyn and Berkeley, in India and Mexico.

Who do you think are the people in politics now who are really going to go to bat for small farmers?

My first answer would be not enough. I would say that most of our representatives, and most people, have no idea how food arrives on their plates or agriculture. They know something, it’s not enough. There is a core group of legislators that understand it and from very different points of view, but there are a group of people in congress. The first people I would rattle off are Rosa DeLauro, Marcy Kaptur, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jon Tester, Sharon Brown and Chuck Grassley. Chuck is a Republican and a commodity guy and farmer, but he understands basic economic unfairness and he has worked trying to get fairer marketing livestock rules passed. Tom Harkin is always great on child nutrition and also conservation issues. There are people that are good on specific issues in agriculture, but you know, it is not a large body.

Who are some of your heroes?

I am really fortunate to know Paul Willis and Lisa Stokke and a lot of farmers in Iowa. Denise O'Brien, Francis Thicke, Ron Rossman and Jan Libbey, the farmer that does my CSA. People that stir things up in a state where industrial agriculture is not just the norm and status quo, but also the way that things are done. And they said you know what, this is not good enough and we can do better. And they made a difference in Iowa. I've drawn a lot of inspiration from Lisa, Paul, Jan Libbey and Denise O'Brien. They stood up to the belly of the beast and said no. No more. It’s people I hear from every day on our list, trying to figure out how to improve things in their own community. Obviously a lot of my intellectual heroes in the movement would be Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Fred Kirschenmann, Joan Gussow, Francis Moore Lappe—people that have been part of the movement, people who have really formed the intellectual basis of the kind of work that we're trying to do here on the ground. Our movement for me is full of a lot of great voices for inspiration and I see it every day on listservs, like Comfood, or when I read stories on other organizations or blogs like Grist or Civil Eats, or Huffpo or Alternet – those are the people and those are the voices that are going to make sure that we're going to win. The food movement for me is a democratic movement, and I am really inspired by the people who are making these hard choices on a daily basis. My heroes are basically anyone that picks up a fork and decides to change the way they eat.

After talking to you for a while this seems like a silly question to ask, but what do you do in your free time? What do you do to relax?

Well I don’t honestly have free time. I get in trouble from Lisa and my mother all the time and I lock myself in my room and work 12 to 16 hours a day, six and seven days a week. Since we started three years ago, I've probably slept less than five hours a night. It’s critically important work and we have a chance in this administration, a very narrow window from when Obama was elected; four to eight years to get changes made. The other side’s prepared.  They have billions of dollars to stop every reform we want. They have all the money to undo any small minor change we can get—and they work day and night; they have a stadium full of lobbyists to lie to the American public and elected officials. So I'm not unique in the fact that I'm obsessive about this work, I'm pretty dedicated to it. I do take time off, and when I do I like to read and go for a walk, I like to kayak; it’s good to be outside in nature. I like to garden, I'm good at that and watering but not so good at weeding—but you gotta do it. Lisa’s pretty good at it and I've tripled the size of her garden in the past three years.

Do you have a favorite food?

I like vegetables and salads. I was a vegetarian for seven years in my 20s and early 30s. Kale and Brussels sprouts are probably my favorite vegetables, nothing very sexy. Kale is one of the most nutritious things you can eat. I like bacon—I never used to like bacon, this is so weird, until I moved back to Iowa and I tried Paul’s bacon and farmers who raised their pigs on pasture. It’s such a remarkable difference.

What is it that keeps you optimistic about the future of sustainable agriculture?

At all times I switch between extreme optimism and a great deal of disappointment—in elected officials and the people that are running these corporations. These people running these corporations are human beings, they're just like us – the problem is they have the wrong value system and they have the wrong beliefs. They're operating on a short term benefit basis, and they're not willing to look at the broader picture and the long-term effects of the decisions and the operating processes that their mode of actions are having on the planet. One thing that keeps me optimistic is having been a history major in college and knowing my family’s history – my ancestors first came here in the 1630s to Virginia. So I have an understanding of power and how abuse of power works. And from a historical standpoint, and I realize that the local food movement or sustainable ag movement, whatever you want to call it, is the extension of the environmental movement—and we are just gathering steam. And the other side is running scared, in fact they are panicked. We have them on the run. That’s why you have these ag gag bills being placed in MN, IA, FL, NY – it’s because they know people see those practices, that they are outrageous, unfair inhumane and unjust. You can only hide lies and injustices for so long. The American people do have an innate sense of fairness and justice. Right now we're seeing industrial agriculture unravel much sooner than they can imagine or than anyone on our side can imagine. The wheels are falling off industrial agriculture faster than the mainstream media can write about it.