Friday, July 5, 2013

Farmers Need to Shine, Don't Fight the Shadow

According to the United States Census Bureau, there are roughly 300 million people living in the United States. Of those, only 15 percent live in what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes as non-metro areas or counties. And when you look at the change and trend in the numbers indicates on a broad level that people are continuing to leave the non-metro areas in the long run. Growth may come and go, but the distance between the rural and metro consumers of our country are growing.

Graph from USDA website:
There is a lot of rhetoric in agriculture about the growing disconnect between gate and plate, farm and food, and the understanding of common farm practices. In part to my internship this summer (which can be read about in previous blog posts), I have realized a few things about how farmers react to the proactive approach that the industry has began to take in order to reconnect consumers with the farms of modern day agriculture. 

In my opinion, farmers are all to often "afraid of their shadow" when trying to talk with consumers who don't have an agriculture background. Occasionally some retired pig farmers will come through the Pig Adventure and they always have memories of the "old days" and "how it used to be". Many offer encouraging words about what we are doing, but some will raise their concerns with transparency. 

Some farmers (all different ages) that I talk with, seem to think that their is a limit to transparency. That we need to "tread lightly" or else we are going to get sunk in hole we can't dig out of. This is where I believe that they are "hiding in their shadow" and not willing to be honest about the practices on the farm. I believe that this is because as an industry, we have underestimated human nature and the one's ability to listen to farmers without jumping down their throats. 

It seems to me that if you have a product (pig farm, crops, dairy, beef, poultry etc) that you are proud of, invested in, and willing to talk to openly about; then 99 percent of the people you talk to are interested and willing to listen to you before forming an opinion about your product and processes. Sometimes people have an negative idea of what you do on the farm because of some propaganda they saw that was sourced by someone opposing agriculture. But even then, people tend to be amazed at the processes of farming and are able to connect with the simplicity that we still have on the farm. Even though we are using technology to find that simplicity.
I'm giving a tour of our breeding operation to a group of friends. Bio security measures require them to wear the disposable suit when in the barns.

My boss asked me the other day, "if a farmer could have a five minute conversation about agriculture and show them an aspect of what they do, could we (agriculture) change the opinion of many people who unknowingly follow the propaganda and form negative feelings towards agriculture?"

I believe that the answer is yes! While I know I it can't be done alone, I believe that their is a special way for agriculture to have these friendly conversations that can mean a world of change for our industry. I want to offer a few reminders for those who want to have these conversations:

  1. Don't be afraid of your shadow - Shadows are only present because their is light shining on us, the time for us to step into that light is now. Bigger shadows mean more light on you! Take advantage of the opportunity present.
  2. Talk about what you do - People want to talk to people. They want to know that you're a farmer and that you care about them. The more personable you can make your conversation, the more they will listen to what you have to say.
  3. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable - many times we begin to talk about what we do, then when a negative term or question arises, we quickly run back into the shadow. No wonder people are afraid of agriculture, if we aren't willing to talk about it ourselves!
  4. Enjoy yourself!! - People want to see you happy and excited to talk about what you do. The light has never shined brighter on agriculture than it does now. I'm proud of what I do and I want to show others why! That is the thought that makes the whole idea of talking to others a bit more comfortable to me. 
Hopefully these words encourage some to begin taking those steps out of the shadows. If you are worried about the response you're going to get, just wait until you see people's faces light up when you show them the farm. I encourage all farmers I talk to, to find a way to have these conversations, through trainings, social media, tours, presentations, and casual conversations around the coffee table. There is no end to what we can achieve when we work together and step out of the shadow.