Defining Quality: What Really Matters?
Keynote Address Given at the North Dakota State Dairy Convention
October 9, 1998 Dickinson, North Dakota
by Christopher Dodson, Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference

I. Introductory Comments on Theme

Since the topic for this convention concerns quality, I thought I would begin by sharing a story about quality and dairy products told to me by the director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

Several decades ago, there was a Wisconsin state legislator who made his political career championing the dairy industry. One of his main accomplishments was a law that prohibited the sale of colored oleo margarine in Wisconsin. Wisconsin was the last state to have such a law and this legislator worked to keep the law on the books. The purpose of the law was to make sure that consumers would not mistakenly purchase the inferior oleo over the high quality Wisconsin butter.

Like all laws, this law had its critics. The critics contended that the law was silly and that good oleo tasted as good as butter. One of the opponents of the law challenged the legislator to a blind-folded taste test at the Wisconsin state capitol. The legislator accepted, confident that he could tell the difference between oleo and butter. On the day of the test, the legislator, before a large crowd was blindfolded and tasted both butter and oleo. He chose one and declared, "This is good ol' Wisconsin butter."

He was wrong. It was margarine. The law was repealed, the legislator was no more the champion of the dairy industry, and he finished out his political career. As happens to all men, he eventually died.

After his death, his wife revealed something she had never told anyone. Years ago, in fact many years before the famous taste test, the legislator's doctor had advised that, for health reasons, the legislator should start using margarine rather than butter. He refused, of course. But his wife began secretly giving him margarine, telling him it was butter. Eventually, he came to believe her and by the time of the taste test challenge, what he thought was the taste of butter was actually the taste of margarine.

I guess the lesson -- if there is one -- is this: If you going to defend quality, you better know what it is you are defending and you better make sure no one is trying to trick you.

That is why I was pleased to see that "Defining Quality" was chosen as the theme for this year's North Dakota Dairy Convention. It is tempting for any group involved in producing a commodity to make merely "quality" its theme. After all, touting "quality milk," "quality cheese," and, of course, "quality ice cream," reflects pride, garners attention, and reveals certainty. With a theme of quality, when the consumer asks, "Are North Dakota dairy products of high quality?" the farmer answers, "You betcha."

"Defining quality," however, is another story. It is not as catchy and risks giving the impression that you are not quite sure of yourself. With a theme of "defining quality," when the consumer asks "Are North Dakota dairy products of high quality?" the farmer responds, "Well, define 'quality.'"

Nevertheless, the theme for this convention reveals a desire to focus on underlying principles and not just on catchy phrases. It shows a willingness to embrace new ideas and question prevailing assumptions as you set a course for the future of dairying in North Dakota. It demonstrates a concern for what really matters.

II. Why is Quality Important?

The place to begin is to examine the task itself. Why look at quality? To some, the answer to this question may seem obvious. "Quality products and quality life are good -- period. There is another reason, however. "Quality" is becoming more and more a standard by which we measure things. In part, this is the result of a philosophy that places greater emphasis on quality than previous prevailing philosophies. It is also because greater access to a variety of goods and services and socio-economic mobility causes one to compare goods and lifestyles in a way that was not possible before.

For example, when people had access to only one bread -- probably the one made at home -- concern for quality was not as great. It fed you and that was good enough. If you complained, there was a good chance you might not get fed.
Before changes in education, transportation, and work environments opened opportunities for people to change jobs and places of residence, concern for quality in lifestyle was not discussed as much. People worked to survive and raise a family -- and it was good enough. Concern for whether one lifestyle was "better" than another was a luxury for a few.

This does not mean that the old ways were of any less quality than the present. In fact, there may have been greater quality in both goods and lifestyle then. However, because little choice existed, quality was not something considered. It just was.

So, discussion of quality has become more and more prevalent in our society. Now we have the choice of buying what we consider "quality" goods. People buy the "better" milk. We have the choice of a trying for a "better quality of life." Sons and daughters leave dairy farming for a "better" life. With those choices comes greater concern and discussion about "quality."

III. "Quality" as it is Often Defined Spells Trouble for Farmers and Rural Life

This greater concern about quality might be just fine except for the fact that the prevailing definition of "quality," seems to place little emphasis on farming and rural life. In fact, the prevailing definition spells trouble for farmers, rural life, and eventually society as a whole.

A. In "Quality" of Product

The threat to agriculture and rural life from the prevailing view of quality most manifests itself in matters concerning quality of life. However, it also plays a role in questions concerning what is a quality product. There is a great temptation to change agricultural practices solely because we are told that it will mean a higher quality product. So, we turn to more and more use of genetically-engineered products, use of hormonal supplements, and other techniques so that the product meets the latest view of what is "quality." In reality, sometimes these new products are not really of greater quality, just different. We should never confuse consumer demand with quality. Sometimes the consumer may want something that is truly quality, sometimes it may not. In the name of "greater quality," we risk trying to meet consumer demand while placing our land, animals, family, and way of life in jeopardy. The consumer does not typically take these social costs into consideration when defining what is a quality good.

Moreover, we must remember that the consumer is often only a passive, unaware player in defining a quality product. Corporations spend millions convincing consumers what they should think is a quality product. The same corporations, or their cooperators, turn to the farmer and demand changes, through a product or service they can provide for a cost, in the name of "meeting consumer demand."

B. In "Quality" of Rural Life

In the prevailing view of quality, the work of a farmer is drudge work and any one with any sense would get out. Lately, I have been hearing farmers say just that -- if anyone had any sense they would get out. This, however, is typically a response to repeated years of not receiving enough income to pay expenses and not the way of life itself. Hear about the farmer that won the lottery? An interviewer asked him if had any special plans for the money. "Nope," the farmer answered, " I'm just gonna keep farming 'til its gone."

Most farmers know that the way of farming is a way blessed by God. Speaking to dairy farmers, Bishop Raymond Burke, of La Crosse Wisconsin, said, "The farmer, perhaps more than others, has the occasion provided by his labor itself to recognize the voice and revelation of God in his creatures." And out of this comes reward -- a quality of life rich, but little understood or respected by much of society.

The prevailing view sees only the work. And here is yet another danger of the increased emphasis on quality. Work, especially manual labor, is increasingly seen as something to be avoided. The prevailing view of a high quality of life is a life with as little work as possible and more time for entertainment. This is not and has never been the Christian view of work.

If the prevailing view of a quality life is one with little or no work, dairy farming is in for tough ride. I am actually surprised anyone is here since dairy farming is perhaps the most labor intensive and time consuming farming there is. If there is any type of farming that is contrary to the prevailing view of quality of life, it is dairy farming. It's you against the world.

Look around with a discerning eye and you will notice how the prevailing view of quality differs from the view traditionally held by farmers and those living in rural communities.

To the American consumer, "quality food" is usually a food that looks great, tastes good and is cheap. To the farmer, "quality food" might be food that is nutritious, produced without harm to God's creation, and one on which he will be able to make enough to cover his expenses.

To much of America, a "quality" location is a suburb with a Walmart, large shopping malls, plenty of Kinko's and a Starbucks. To rural North Dakota, a "quality" location is farm with good land, close to a town with a church, friends, and a school.

To agribusiness, "quality" means that which returns the greatest profit. To agriculture, "quality" means that which sustains a way of life that respects creation, preserves the family, and contributes to the community.

This prevailing view is constantly communicated by those with power in business and government, sometimes because there is financial interest in doing so, sometimes because of a belief in a philosophy that has no place for labor and rural communities, sometimes because of elitism.

Increasingly, the prevalent view of quality makes it difficult for family farmers to continue. After all, farm policy, too often, is going to reflect the prevailing view. Also increasingly, farmers, their children, and rural residents are accepting this view.

IV. Means of Conveying the Prevailing Definition

They are increasingly accepting it because they are being bombarded with it. These concepts are conveyed through:

A. The Media -- Especially Television

The television industry prides itself as the shaper of a national culture in the United States. I find this humorous and arrogant. I thought we were a nation 170 years before television came along. We fought a war for it and still had divisions, especially racial divisions, but we were a nation. Television came along, however, and convinced critics that a new homogenous national culture, from east to west, would be created.

This is one of those notions of progress that was readily accepted, without concern for its consequences. While understanding and tolerance of cultural differences is good, it is questionable whether obliteration of those cultural differences is good, especially when the prevailing new cultural norm is contrary to the values many hold dear.

Television has become the primary means by which the prevailing view of quality is conveyed to our children. If you want to know why your sons and daughters don't want to stay on the farm, look at what they watch on television. Rarely will you find anything on television which glamorizes heading out to the parlor at 6:00 in the morning in sub-zero temperatures to milk. What is sold to them as a "quality" life is an urban life, with single friends sitting around discussing sex while drinking expensive coffee. Television tells us that this is the norm, this is "quality life."

Occasionally, you will see rural life used on television for sentimental, nostalgic purposes, especially in commercials. These are probably even more dangerous. The message of these images is that rural life was the good life. Something that was but that you can never go back to. When farming and small towns are pictured as nostalgic, it is the kiss of death.

B. Corporate/Consumer Standards and Preferences

The media, of course, is the main means by which consumer preferences are formed. As a result, an entire system develops which tells us what is quality. This system tells consumers what they should purchase and farmers what they should produce. So the standards which we are expected to meet become another way of conveying the prevailing view of quality. Often, our agriculture support services become part of this system.

C. Regulations

Eventually, the prevailing view can find its way into regulations regarding farm products.

D. Schools

Schools also are a place where the prevailing view of quality is conveyed. I was discussing this topic with someone involved in Catholic education for one of our dioceses. He noted how school curricula, materials, and the educational establishment convey a lack of understanding, if not disrespect, for rural life.

V. Danger of Overemphasis on Quality

So, we have a prevailing view of "quality" that in many ways does not respect farming and rural life. And, it is regularly communicated to society, even our children. What are we to do? Well, this convention has already started to respond by asking: "How do we define quality?"

As a starting point, we must recognize an important fact. Quality may be important, but an over-emphasis on quality is dangerous.

A. Like Danger of Overemphasis on Efficiency

It is not much different than the problem with over-emphasis on efficiency. Efficiency is good. No one really argues for inefficiency. However, when we over-emphasize efficiency and make efficiency the standard by which all things are measured we lose what is most important. When we become excessively concerned with making the greatest profit possible in the most efficient manner, we run the risk of ignoring families, practicing poor stewardship of natural resources, failing to justly compensate laborers, and alienating a person from his or her labor -- to name a few of the potential problems. What it comes down to is that over-concern for efficiency fails to respect the dignity and life of the human person.

Now you can see why this a concern of churches. The things lost by over-emphasis on efficiency are the very things that are sacred. They are the things that really matter. This is why Pope John Paul II has said that when cultural, economic and political currents encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency, a "conspiracy against life" is unleashed and a "culture of death" is promoted. This is also why churches, Catholic and Protestant, are raising voices against the destruction of family farms in the name of "greater efficiency."

Perhaps nothing infuriates me more than when I read something about a new trend, product, machinery, or policy that is going to make farming more efficient and no consideration is given, whatsoever, to its costs to humanity, families, or creation. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Nevertheless, if you were to read some agribusiness literature or go to a some farm shows, you could easily get the impression that greater efficiency can always be achieved without affecting family life, communities, or God's creation simply because concern for these fundamental matters are not even mentioned.

Another point: Whether something is more efficient is a matter of debate. There are studies that show, for example, that contrary to the prevailing view in agri-business, small, farmer-owned and operated hog farms are more efficient than large-scale corporate hog operations. Nevertheless, the very subject of the debate is often the wrong one. It may be that large-scale corporate hog factories are more efficient. But if small family owned operations are efficient enough, that is what should be preferred because they are more likely to respect the dignity of labor, care for creation, and preserve the common good.

As one farmer told me, "I am tired of being told I need to be more efficient in order to be a 'better farmer' so, at the expense of my family and sometimes the farm itself, I can make a few cents more an acre -- all of which ends up going to someone else."

B. Danger that Concern for Quality Blinds Concern for More Important Matters

The danger of over-emphasizing quality is much like the danger of over-emphasizing efficiency. In fact, the two dangers are not much different and closely related. An over-emphasis on either risks losing what really matters.

As with efficiency, quality is good so long as it does not blind us to more important things such as family, the dignity of the human person, and good stewardship of creation. When people had more choices concerning where to live and work, they sought the so-called "better" life. Too often that "better" life was not better at all. In search for a "quality" job, too many people move away from their families, or worse, find themselves in careers that force them to spend less time with their children and spouses and less time to devote to their community. Traditionally, civic and fraternal organizations have been considered a sign of a healthy community. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that membership in the Elks has declined 21 percent over the last 15 years. The Lions Club is down 14 percent over 10 years. The Shriners have lost 32 percent in 17 years and the Jaycees, 44 percent. Our churches are seeing the same problems.

Certainly, our present economic system sometimes provides us with few choices. Both farm and non-farm families find it necessary to take more than one job to make ends meet. There are really two problems here. First, there are those that are so obsessed with a "quality" job and access to "quality" products and entertainment, whether or not they are necessary, that home and community life suffers. Second, there are those that would spend more time with family and community if they could. However, a society that places little value on family and community will not provide a wage and economic system that permits devotion to family and community.

An over-concern for quality can also be considered a factor for our high divorce rate. Too many people in our society become so concerned with a "quality" marriage, that is, one that satisfies them personally, or a "quality" sex life, that they move one from one marriage to another, in a form of serial polygamy, searching for the "highest quality" relationship, rather than sticking to one that is "good" and working to make it better.

Indeed, many of our social problems can be attributed to, in part, to an improper, excessive concern for quality. Divorce, substance abuse, abortion, assisted suicide, infidelity, unjust wages, and environmental devastation, all have their roots, in part, in a over-concern for quality.

C. Danger of Emphasizing One "Quality" Over Another

In addition to not over-emphasizing quality, we must be careful not to emphasize one quality over another. Such as emphasizing quality product while forgetting quality of life.

During the last year, we have all been watching the work of the Commission on the Future of Agriculture. In its mission statement, the Commission on the Future of Agriculture sought to "improve the quality of rural life." However, the actual report of the Commission rarely, if ever, addresses quality of rural life. The Commission's final report mentions "quality" nine times. It discusses "quality of food production," "quality food," "high quality products," and "quality assurance standards." In short, the Commission report focuses on the quality of North Dakota agricultural products and little on quality of rural life. The closest it probably got was a recommendation for "quality health insurance" for farmers.

I say this not to disparage the Commission or its report. I know for a fact that preserving and enhancing the quality of rural life was on the minds of many of the Commission members. I also know that there is a relationship between enhancing the quality or rural life and marketing quality products. However, emphasis on primarily on quality products should raise some concern. There always exists the possibility that quality of product could be obtained at the expense of quality of life.

Certainly an argument can be made that that has already happened. The United States provides perhaps the highest quality agricultural products in world -- certainly the best dairy products, right? In the meantime, the quality of rural life in the United States has declined; more families have left the land, rural schools, churches, and businesses have closed, and concentration of ownership in land and production has increased. The consumer has obtained high quality cheap food, but at the expense of the quality of rural life.

D. A Form of Idolatry?

From a biblical perspective this obsessive concern for quality has a name -- idolatry. It is idolatry because it puts quality before that which is more important. The Gospel does not call us to find a high quality lifestyle or the best quality products. It calls us to love and serve God and our neighbor, which, in turn, means to respect the life and dignity of the human person, strengthen families, be goods stewards of the land, and promote the common -- not individual -- good. Anything that distracts us from that task, whether it is concern for efficiency or quality -- is idolatry.

VI. What is True "Quality?"

Having established that we will give quality its due respect and not over-emphasis, we can turn to how to define quality. For this, we need to turn to some fundamental, though little discussed principles. For these principles, I have turned to Catholic social teaching. They are, however, not just Catholic. They are biblical and Christian, and yet so universal that they are acceptable by any person of any faith.

Before I go on, I want to say this. As the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference I work on many, many issues. On no issue have I seen more agreement among religious denominations -- evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, you name it -- as I have seen on farm issues. There are, perhaps, several reasons for this. One possible reason is that our farms are in crisis and this crisis has put faith into action. After all, as any soldier will tell you, there are no atheists in the foxholes. Another reason is that principles that are at stake here are fundamental principles, common to all religions.

A. The Dignity and Life of the Human Person

Whenever discussing what is quality we must keep in mind that the ultimate test is whether it enhances or diminishes human dignity. Why is dignity so important? In biblical terms, it stems from the recognition that humans were created in God's image. As a result, every person is bestowed with a dignity that cannot be earned or taken away. It can, however, be respected or diminished by others.

This is why the Pope has said that "Respect for life, and above all the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress."And the U.S. Catholic bishops have said, "The test of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human life and human dignity."

This has enormous implications for farm policy and what is quality. It demands that any farm policy, such as a milk pricing policy, puts the human person first. It means that the economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.

This is why Bishop James Sullivan, the Roman Catholic bishop of Fargo, in a homily in New York City that gained national attention called our nation's farm policy a "sin against life." He could have called it something else, but he called it a "sin against life" because it fails to put thee human person first and removes families from farms in the name of so-called "greater efficiency." Efficiency and production is not and cannot be the sole standard by which farming is measured.

Therefore, a product should not be called a "quality" product, no matter how many people like it or buy it, if its production or the product itself diminishes human dignity or threatens human life. Any true definition of "quality" must include what is good for the human person.

B. The Common Good

Closely related to the concept of human dignity is the need to promote and protect the common good. We are social beings where the life and dignity of the human person is best respected and protected in community. We are not isolated individuals. Therefore, we are to seek the common good, rather than individual desires.

This also means that we must work to preserve family farms. In a famous study started in the 1940's, anthropologist Walter Goldshmidt established that quality communities are inherently related to a family farm system of agriculture. His study has been repeated and verified over and over. Family farms offer the best guarantee of healthy rural communities -- and urban as well. Healthy communities best promote the common good necessary to respect and protect human life and dignity.

A quality lifestyle, therefore, is for the common good. It does not pit community against community, farmer against farmer. A quality good is one that lifts everyone, not just agribusiness or the few.

C. The Integrity of Creation

The earth is the Lord's. Humans, and by virtue of their vocation, especially farmers, are to be responsible stewards of creation -- land, water, air, and animals. "Quality" can never justify poor stewardship of God's creation.

But here's the issue. I have never met a family farmer who does not believe he has an obligation to properly steward creation. However, I know many farmers who feel they are pressured to engage in practices that threaten or possibly threaten the environment. These pressures often come from agribusiness, buyers, lending agencies, and the land-grant college system in the name of greater efficiency and "quality." True quality, however, lightly touches upon creation. True quality recognizes that the land, water, and animals, are God's and should be treated as such.

D. Universal Destination of Goods

Closely related to the need to respect creation is the universal destination of goods. The earth is the Lord's and all of its goods and products are meant for all, throughout generations. This means that any concern for quality must respect natural resources since we have a moral obligation to ensure that the goods of the earth are available for future generations.

This also means that a just farm policy, one that is worthy of being called a policy contributing to a quality of life, must provide due compensation to farmers for their labor. It means that excess profits, especially at the expense of the laborer, are unjust. It means that concentration of ownership in agriculture, whether in land, animals, technology, seed, genetic make-up, or production is improper. All of these are violations of the commandment, "Thou shall not steal."

It also means that no one has, in the words of Pope John Paul II, a "freedom to 'use or misuse' or to dispose of things as one pleases." Everything, including private property, is subject to the universal destination of goods, the common good, and the need to respect human life and dignity. A high quality of life does not mean the right to exercise absolute ownership over anything.

This principle also calls us to recognize and live within limits. No matter what we are taught to believe about progress, there are limits to what we can or should do. There comes a point, for example, where a farmer can own too many acres or too many heads, such that he cannot practice good stewardship. If you own an ant farm, accept that you are not going to find a tractor small enough to fit it.

E. Subsidiarity

Human dignity requires that persons and communities should exercise responsible self- governance. Subsidiarity means that no higher community, whether it be government or business, should strip a person or local community of its capacity to see, judge and act on its own behalf without serious and good reason. With serious and good reason, the higher order might have a duty to involve itself in the affairs of the local community.

Therefore, quality must acknowledge and respect the local. In some respects, this also means that higher orders should be circumspect about defining for the local community what is a quality way of life.

F. Option for the Poor

A basic premise in Christianity is that the poor come first. This does not mean just the economic poor. It includes those with less power and influence, the most vulnerable, and the marginalized.

A strong case can be made that the "poor" today includes the family farmer; not because they are among the economic poor -- although this is increasingly true -- but because they are among the least powerful, their communities are vulnerable and their way of life is marginalized, ignored, or forgotten. Just witness how hard it has been to make the nation pay attention to the farm crisis in North Dakota. Look at how seemingly powerless ranchers are when dealing with livestock processors. Time and time again it is difficult to get the nation to understand rural life and recognize its importance. That puts the family farmer among the poor.

The ultimate test of any farm policy or program is how does it affect the family farmer. The ultimate test of any definition of quality is how the does it affect the family farmer.

VII. Why is Instilling Notions of True Quality Important?

So, when defining quality we must remember the human person, the common good, the integrity of creation, the universal destination of goods, the preference for the local, and the poor. This list is not complete, but it is a good place to start.

If we launch any program for quality product or quality life without considering these principles, it is not truly a program of quality. If a program violates any of these principles, it is not truly a program of quality. Our task is to make these principles an integral part of any definition of quality. By doing so, you put first that which really matters -- family, farming, community, children, creation.

Defining quality, however, is only the beginning. Conveying this message is crucial. The challenge before you is to convince non-farmers, urban residents, policy makers, and even your own children, why true quality demands that dairy farming be conducted by family farmers and why it best benefits children, communities, and society as a whole. You cannot hold on to what you believe and know is quality unless the society at large is going to agree and support that notion of quality.

Those that care about true quality -- which should include not only farmers, but the state government, the dairy industry, farm organizations, and churches -- must become missionaries for quality -- life and product. Missionaries for what really matters. The dairy industry has done a fine public relations job on selling milk. Thanks to the "Got milk?" campaign, all of the American public now knows who shot Alexander Hamilton. This was undoubtedly a great service to our county's history teachers. Now lets see if we can have a campaign that makes milk synonymous with quality farms and rural communities worth preserving.

The challenge is a difficult one. This message is in many ways counter-cultural. Do not assume that the rest of the world will immediately agree. Assuming that the world is going to treat you good because you are speaking on behalf of something good is like assuming a bull won't charge you because you are a vegetarian.

Nevertheless, it is a task we must take up. A task not just for dairy farmers, but all farmers, all North Dakotans, and our churches. Churches must join together to preserve family farming and rural life. You, dairy farmers, produce high quality products and engage in a quality life. You have reason to be proud. Churches must join with you and give you reason to have hope.

Family farming offers our best chance to instill true values to our children, especially about labor, stewardship of creation, and community. It offers our best chance for a food system that reflects principles justice. It offer the best chance to create a society where the dignity of the human person and the common good are respected and preserved. That is what quality means.

VIII. Conclusion

So, as a concluding thought on the subject of defining quality, we are wise to reflect on what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if their is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."