Monthly Archives: January 2014

Pragmatism With Big Ag

Note: As a student in Marylhurst University’s Food Systems and Society master’s program, I am writing a lot. When I started the year I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t have time to also write my weekly blog posts. That concern has born itself out—it’s been a struggle! But I recently had an epiphany: I could use some of my writing from last quarter in my blog posts. So, the following is an essay I wrote, citations and everything!

My goal in considering solutions for the food system is to challenge Big Agriculture without becoming an apologist for it. As I noted in [a previous essay], I value small-scale farms and community gardens but doubt they alone can solve the food crisis. I feel that if Big Ag can be coerced to embrace more sustainable practices, as is being attempted within energy industry policy with solar and wind power, or the automobile industry with more efficient cars, more headway will be made than by trying to replace Big Ag with something else. In this way, I consider myself a pragmatist.

As noted in Bennett et al, being a pragmatist is somewhat dicey: “When praised, the pragmatist is credited with hard-headed attention to what it takes to get things done, combined, perhaps, with a necessary indifference to abstract questions concerning the good and the true. [Author’s note: I would put ‘good’ and ‘true’ in quotation marks.] When blamed, the pragmatist is contrasted with the ‘person of principle,’ who ignores the world’s political realities and holds fast precisely to those considerations of the good and the true that must not be slighted or compromised in the interest of achieving some desired end” (2005).

There is a tradition in the United States of supporting an entity until it becomes too powerful, at which time then it becomes reviled in popular culture (though still powerful). Examples: Microsoft; Britney Spears [substitute Justin Bieber in light of recent events]; Facebook; Science; Monsanto. This is made easier by the fact that entities that become too powerful almost always abuse their power. Monsanto is an interesting case, as it’s become the scapegoat for all industrial agriculture—Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, or ConAgra are rarely mentioned for similar pursuits. While Monsanto spent more than $8 million on the Prop. 37 campaign in California in 2012, DuPont spent $5.4 million (Voter’s Edge, 2012). But few protesters mention DuPont on their placards. Pointing this out sometimes makes me appear to be speaking up for Monsanto, when really I’m just trying to paint a more complete picture.

Along the same lines, I might appear to be defending Big Ag when I suggest that they might need to be included in, rather than routed from, a solution to our food crisis. As Holt-Giménez and Wang note, “If the history of U.S. capitalism and social change is a reliable guide, we can be assured that substantive changes to the corporate food regime will not come simply from within the regime itself, but from a combination of intense social pressure and political will” (2011). But it can happen. The successful photocopy corporation Kinko’s added Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper to its selection (, 2003). Nike changed its corporate policies to improve working conditions and compensation. The effect of scale when a corporation makes a change like this is much more significant than that of a bunch of smaller companies.

If Big Ag were convinced, via social pressure and/or political will, to halve its pesticide use, the result might eclipse all of the organic community gardens combined. The public never tried to eliminate Kinko’s or Nike (not to mention such effort would be futile); they simply sent a message to act like responsible global citizens. If Big Ag is approached in the same way, we might see similar results.

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2013 GYPO Blog in Review

I’ve been working on this blog for two years now! WordPress, the host of this blog, prepared a 2013 annual report. It’s pretty fancy! So, I thought I would share it. Thanks for reading the Get Your Pitchfork On blog!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,100 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Plein Air Rising

I wrote in a 2012 GYPO blog post about participating in a special writing event in the Columbia Gorge every fall, the Plein Air Writing Exhibition. In fact, I ran the event for a couple years and launched the first online anthology in 2008. Next to the Oregon Book Awards, it was my favorite literary event of the year. I liked that it was different writing from what I was usually doing, short fiction and essays. I liked that it was an excuse to sit outside for hours at a time, simply observing things and not feeling like I ought to be cleaning out the chicken coop or mending fence.

When I was invited to serve as the Harney County Writer-in-Residence in 2010, I based my curriculum for everyone I worked with—from kindergarteners to adults—on this experience of writing en plein air. We all bundled up and went outside, ignoring the springtime chill, and observed: What do we see? What do we hear? What do we feel? The younger kids dictated their thoughts to me; the older kids and adults wrote their own pieces. These, too, were collected in an anthology.

Students in Diamond laboring over their work

Students in Diamond laboring over their work

It was especially cold for this workshop in Burns!

It was especially cold for this workshop in Burns!

Over the years, I have accumulated a manuscript’s worth of pieces. I’ve published a few—in the Plein Air anthologies of course, but also in High Desert Journal and Eclectic Flash, and submitted them to Literary Arts’ Oregon Literary Fellowships program. This year, they appealed to judge Amy Leach, and I was awarded a fellowship!

Many years ago (1999 – 2006) I ran this very program myself, and so it means a great deal to me to be recognized by it. I know, intimately, how much work it is for program manager Susan Denning, so I want to take the opportunity to publicly recognize her efforts to keep the OLFs running smoothly.

I also want to thank the Columbia Center for the Arts (CCA) for keeping the Plein Air Writing Exhibition going for nine years. And Pat Case, whose idea it was originally to add a writing component to the painting competition, and who invited me to participate in the first event.

Plein Air writing on display in CCA gallery, 2010

Plein Air writing on display in CCA gallery, 2010

The nonfiction judge, Amy Leach, wrote this about the manuscript:

“In each of her short and radiant portraits of the Columbia River Gorge, Kristy Athens captures a distinct moment in a distinct place. Entering imaginatively into the disparate purposes of basalt, dahlias, spent strawberries and antiquated stairways, she writes with fellow feeling and wit about a remarkable range of lives, thrilling with the quiddity of each. A prosperous pear tree throws away perfect fruit; an obsolete tractor is revived by its own exploding boiler; solitary ponderosas leave the observer ‘pondering deep-rooted complexity.’ These encounters of a sympathetic, nimble mind with a marvelous place remind us of the limitlessness of life.”

Wow! You can view some of the pieces included in this collection via my website: scroll down to the Basalt Becomes You section.

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Night Sky

Any of you who saw me read from Get Your Pitchfork On at a bookstore or library may recall that I ended each presentation with the introduction to the Land Section. It’s a kind of a love-letter to the land, which is my main motivation for country living. In it, I talk about the brilliance of a full moon and the devastating beauty of a starlit, moonless night. Well, as beautiful as it was in the Gorge, in Wallowa County there is exponentially more drama.

Part of the difference is that I am forced, by way of needing to let the puppies out to pee, to be up at 4-or-so every morning. I love sleep too much to say I’m happy about this, but I will go so far as to admit that I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear Great Horned owls talking from tree to tree around our yard; see elk crunch across the area just outside the fence; hear coyotes working themselves into a shrill frenzy out past the barn.

Part of it is our remarkable location. From our house, west of and about a hundred feet higher than the towns of Enterprise and Joseph, we see pretty much the entire northern half of the Wallowa Valley, foothills trailing off behind the East Moraine of Wallowa Lake, layer after layer, with the horizon being drawn by the Seven Devils of Idaho. Idaho! Some 40 miles away. Behind us looms Ruby Peak and the rest of the Wallowa Mountains wrapping around us toward the north.

As I was writing this post, the sun dipped behind the mountains behind me. Blue shadows dropped down the slope, engulfed Enterprise and Joseph, and then the far ridge. But the Devils were still lit by the sun. In fact, they reflected the sunset, bright orange-pink—a dazzlingly bright, mountainous median surrounded by dim winterscape.

And the moon. I’ve seen some good moons in my day. But somehow the moon is more show-off-y out here. I’ve seen the Harvest and Hunter’s moons rise above the sparse lights of Enterprise like the Great Pumpkin. I even saw it set, early one morning, behind my neighbor’s house. A couple times a small, white moon has risen above the Devils while they were lit up with sunset.


Moon setting behind my neighbor’s house at 5 a.m.


Moon and Venus above the Wallowa range








I mean, really

I really need to get a real camera, living up here

And, since this post is about the night sky, I haven’t even mentioned the sunrises! Lighting up the hills; calling us to the day. Last week we had freezing fog for two days, and Mike was able to watch the entire sunrise because it was obscured enough to not threaten his retinas. It was an orange orb, rising like—the moon.


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