Going There: Food, Farming And Health Michel Martin went to Kansas City, Mo., this week to talk about food and health with organic farmer Linda Hezel, hybrid farmer Chris Boeckmann and Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst.

Going There: Food, Farming And Health

Going There: Food, Farming And Health

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Michel Martin went to Kansas City, Mo., this week to talk about food and health with organic farmer Linda Hezel, hybrid farmer Chris Boeckmann and Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst.


This week, I headed to Kansas City, Mo., as part of our live-event series we call Going There. The subject of our conversation this time was how we eat. And our first panel focused on farming. We were joined by Linda Hezel. She grows organic crops on her small farm. Also with us was Chris Boeckmann, a so-called hybrid farmer. He's raised poultry for both the conventional and organic markets. We also talked with Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst. He grows corn and soybeans on his family farm. And I started by asking Blake Hurst why he and other conventional farmers say they often feel like they are cast as the villains in today's food story.

BLAKE HURST: Because I'm not organic. I use GMOs and, you know, very much what - I guess it's typically called a conventional farmer and very unapologetic about it as well. We do that for a very good set of reasons. We haven't tilled our ground in 30 years either because genetically-modified seed makes it possible for me to be a no-till farmer. So there's environmental reasons that I use the latest technology to make my farm not only efficient but environmentally friendly as well.

MARTIN: Talk to me though about why you would even feel the need to say that you're unapologetic about it. I mean, this is - you know, large-scale farming is in part one of the reasons why this country has been the best-fed nation in the world - in the history of the world. And yet you somehow I think feel at some point you become the bad guy. When did that happen?

HURST: Oh, I think you could probably answer that better than I. But I don't think there's any doubt if you date it from Michael Pollan's graduation from journalism school...


HURST: ...Or when you date it - there's no doubt that there's lots of questions about traditional conventional agriculture. And we're - and it's something, you know, we're willing to talk about, obviously eagle to talk about it. I'll bore you.


HURST: And so - you know, I'm totally transparent. I'm glad to talk about what I do. But you do feel a certain amount of defensiveness, which I work very hard to not exhibit; but it's there.

MARTIN: Linda, do you have thoughts about that? As I understand it, you're critical of conventional farming. You are all organic.


MARTIN: Right, and why is that?

HEZEL: Well, for me it's just very practical. If I just say it out loud that we dump poison on our food or use poison to protect our food from insects or disease and then we eat it, it sounds like a really strange thing to do because the chemicals are linked to potential side effects. While it doesn't take me down to zero risk as it - from a disease or some other insult, it certainly reduces my risk. And I want to control that risk in what I eat and what I teach people to eat and how to grow it.

MARTIN: Blake, what do you think about that? You have an opinion about that?

HURST: Oh yeah. But there's a lot of...


HURST: A lot of things to unpack there. So you asked me...

MARTIN: We've got nowhere to go, come on.

HURST: You asked me why do I feel defensive - because my panelist just said - my co-panelist just said I use poison on my crops. Chemicals - the pesticides I use are approved by the EPA. Organic producers use pesticides as well. Their pesticides are natural. Mine are not necessarily natural. Natural does not imply safe. Arsenic is natural; Coca-Cola is not. Nicotine is natural. So if you think that organic foods don't have to fight pests by adding things to the fields, they do - organic producers - they do. If you think that there are chemicals that are things they treat their crops with are not toxic - yes, they are. Are they worse? Sometimes. Are they better? Sometimes. It depends.

MARTIN: Linda, is there anything you wanted to add to that before I bring Chris in? Anything you want to say?

HEZEL: Well, I understand that organic is not without inputs and that some are dangerous. But a poison is a poison. A pesticide or fungicide is called that because it kills. And I don't need to - I don't need fruit and veggies that don't have any insect or disease damage. I grew up eating fruit that you had to cut a wormhole out of, you know? There are some who say that a tree or plant that has to resist an organism or a disease is actually more flavorful because it causes something to happen in the plant to produce more sugars...

HURST: But they resist those with substances that are poisons to the pests. I mean, the plant produces them naturally, right? They have natural pesticides, so I guess you could talk about poison there as well.

HEZEL: Well, it could be. I have not done that research.

HURST: Yeah.

HEZEL: But I'm not trying to be confrontational about what you use. You use it. That's your decision. I choose not to use it. But that's...

HURST: But the point I'm making is I think that the farming-to-market movement and the small farms and the organic farms have been a great boon to agriculture. But I think all of us need to be very careful about the language we use when we talk about other farmers.

MARTIN: Chris, you want to talk about that a little bit? I'm really interested - you are a person who's had a foot in both worlds doing both the organic and the conventional farming. And I'm interested in what your experiences were on both sides.

CHRIS BOECKMANN: Yeah, it does make it interesting having been on both sides. And quite frankly, I see issues on both sides. But at the same time, I also see a lot of potential solutions that are there and available. And as far as how do you have that discussion, I think that both sides need to be willing to come to the table and be completely honest with one another about the situations. We can look at both sides of the equation - doesn't matter if you're talking about organic or conventional or all-national, like what we raise. There are good points and there are challenges on both sides of the discussion. And there really needs to be a dialogue where we're willing to come back. And rather than spending so much energy and time pointing fingers at each other saying this is what we're doing and you're not doing that, we need to really - big picture - what are the challenges? Where do we want to go with this thing? And what are all of us willing to do to make sure we get there?

MARTIN: All right.

BOECKMANN: You know, so it has to be an honest - and part of being honest and nonjudgmental is you have to be willing to accept some criticism.

MARTIN: But we've raised all - a bunch of issues here. A couple of people are asking philosophical questions. So before we let you go - this is one I think that summarizes it - which is how do we foster honest, nonjudgmental dialogue about food when so much of what we eat is connected to our personal values? Blake, final thought on that?

HURST: We have to do just make sure people always have choices in what they believe and choices in what they can purchase, and then we don't have a problem. Then each of us - each of the three of us serve a very different niche in the market in a very different way. And as long as there's always the ability to buy whatever kind of food you desire, then there's going to be a farmer that's willing to produce it. And so that's the way we get out of this. We let people have freedom.


MARTIN: You heard from farmers Chris Boeckmann, Linda Hezel and Blake Hurst, speaking at our event in Kansas City earlier this week.

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Going There: How We Eat

Live stream begins at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

As our food system has rapidly evolved over the past few decades, issues surrounding where our food comes from and what it contains have become mainstream, often politicized, debates. However, when debating something like organic versus genetically modified food, which communities are included in the dialogue and who benefits when decisions are made? Can producers and consumers work together to make sure high quality food is accessible to everyone?

Tonight, I'm in Kansas City, Missouri to focus on these issues with people who are passionate about what's on their plates and how it got there. In collaboration with member station KCUR and Harvest Public Media, the two-part live event will feature dynamic storytelling and live performances. We will also take the discussion to social media with an engaging Twitter chat all about how we eat.

You can join that conversation now. Just use the hashtag #NPRHowWeEat to share your thoughts. The chat is moderated by @NPRMichel.

Joining us on Twitter are:

  • Kathleen Bauer, @GoodStuffNW, of Good Stuff NW is a food writer in Portland, Oregon, focused on field-to-plate issues such as seasonal eating, food justice, agricultural policies and how our food system can work better.
  • John Boyd, Jr., @JWBoydNBFA, is founder and president of the non-profit National Black Farmers Association. Boyd is a fourth-generation black farmer, businessman and civil rights activist.
  • John Gordon Jr., @BoysGrow, is the founder and executive director of BoysGrow, an agricultural and entrepreneurial program for inner-city boys in the Kansas City area.
  • Peggy Lowe, @peggyllowe, investigations editor for Harvest Public Media, a public media reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food.

An assortment of organic vegetables is seen on display. A growing body of evidence documents how farming methods can influence the nutritional content of foods. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

An assortment of organic vegetables is seen on display. A growing body of evidence documents how farming methods can influence the nutritional content of foods.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Luke Runyon, @LukeRunyon, reports for Harvest Public Media, and is based at member station KUNC in Colorado. He primarily reports on local food systems, cattle and agricultural technology

Featured Live Panelists:

  • Chris Boeckmann is the farm manager of the Lincoln University Busby Research Farm in Jefforson City, Missouri. He also operates a forage-based cattle operation in Loose Creek, Missouri with his family.
  • Ted Genoways is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, a finalist for the 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Writing and Literature.
  • Linda Hezel is the farm steward at Prairie Birthday Farm, a family farm in west central Missouri that supplies sustainable produced fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs, honey, and edible flowers to area residents and local chefs.
  • Blake Hurst is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. Along with his family, Hurst also raises corn and soybeans and operates a wholesale greenhouse business.
  • Wes Jackson is president of The Land Institute and the author of several books including New Roots for Agriculture and Nature as Measure.
  • Shanita McAfee Bryant is a winner of Food Network's culinary competition show Cutthroat Kitchen. She is also chef and Owner of Magnolia's Contemporary Southern Bistro.
  • Alex Pope is the founder of The Local Pig butcher shop in Kansas City.