MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Most food in America is produced on big farms in collaboration with enormous corporations. It's an efficient system that makes food cheap and abundant.

But the downsides, including pollution and allegations of animal abuse, have given American agriculture an image problem. And so big agricultural companies and groups representing farmers are going on the offensive, as Frank Morris of Harvest Public Media reports.

FRANK MORRIS: Almost all farmers fret that guys like Eddie Foster, standing on his family's operation in Montgomery County, Missouri, are a vanishing breed.

Mr. EDDIE FOSTER (Farmer): Oh yeah. When I was a kid everybody had hogs in the county, and now there's about two of us left that are independents.

MORRIS: It used to be that most Americans had some connection to the farm. Now, only one in a thousand of us grow 85 percent of the food. For decades, the best farmers could do was to hang on and adapt as their political and economic clout withered. Federal subsidies kept them afloat.

These days, farmers are making very good money on everything from corn to cows. But as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned a group of farm broadcasters meeting in Kansa City, Congress could change all the rules next year, when it takes up the Farm Bill.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): And you're going to have folks from cities, making decisions about the Farm Bill. You'd better talk to them.

MORRIS: Because city folks are hearing a lot about agriculture these days and not a lot of it is good.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: The industry doesn't want you to know the truth about what you're eating because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.

MORRIS: That's a trailer from "Food Inc.," a documentary depicting inhumane treatment of animals and general disregard for human health in agribusiness. Margo Baldwin, president of Chelsea Green Publishing, says Americans are ravenous for this type of reporting.

Ms. MARGO BALDWIN (President, Chelsea Green Publishing): When you have books about it becoming bestsellers - so, Barbra Kingsolver, Michal Pollen, Eric Schlosser - suddenly, it becomes highly, highly visible.

MORRIS: Many farmers worry that most people get all their information about agriculture from foodie advocacy. So, big ag is fighting back, with paid advertising.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Few other industries have shown such efficiency, and respect for the environment. So when you ask who's caring for the land, look to the people who live on it and make a living from it: America's farmers.

MORRIS: This spot is funded by the seed and chemical giant Monsanto, where Mark Halton is in charge of global corporate marketing.

Mr. MARK HALTON (Monsanto): We're telling the story of the American farmer, and we're using iconic images, which, you know, these aren't actors, these are farmers.

MORRIS: It's not just Monsanto. Several other agribusiness companies are mounting remarkably similar campaigns. And two dozen of the biggest ag trade groups have joined the fray, putting aside bitter disputes to form an unprecedented coalition. It's called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Hugh Whaley runs it.

Mr. HUGH WHALEY (U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance): We want the general public to feel totally safe in their decision-making process and totally comfortable about the food they buy.

MORRIS: Whaley says they'll do it by showcasing real farmers and ranchers. Cattleman Fred Stokes finds that a little odd.

Mr. FRED STOKES (Cattle Rancher): Hey, the farmer and rancher don't have an image problem.

MORRIS: Stokes says it's big agribusiness that has the image problem. Seeing groups aligned with it, united ostensibly to help family farmers...

Mr. STOKES: ...is a little like seeing a gathering of mafia dons, smoking their long green cigars, putting out the cover story that they're gathering to build a convent.

MORRIS: As Stokes sees it, the good image farmers and ranchers enjoy is being exploited by soulless ag conglomerates. But Mike Matson with the Kansas Farm Bureau says this rancor has to stop.

Mr. MIKE MATSON (Kansas Farm Bureau): We have seen that this trend line toward, you know, sustaining the political will to do the same thing, is not as strong as it's always been. And at some point, we'll reach that tipping point, which is why it's so important for farmers and ranchers to get involved.

MORRIS: And they are getting involved as never before. Many believe it's the best hope they have to keep the agricultural system they've learned to live with from becoming even more hostile to the family farm.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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