2/11/2017 1 Comment
I just wrapped up a week of being on the road, talking with young farmers throughout the Midwest. I had committed to speaking at three different events this week, all of which catered to young farmers.
During my presentations , I shared with them the questions that consumers share with me, and tips for how they can tell their own farm story.
Without fail, this presentation evokes passion and sparks conversation among farmers, but even more noticeably among young farmers.
This week there were some very clear themes that emerged - realities of farming that our young farmers are dying for you to know.
1. Our family farm is getting bigger - so that I can come home.
We discuss the fact that many Americans are less trusting of what they see as "big" farms and this always gets the same response, "We have to grow! How am I suppose to come back and also raise a family here if we don't find a way to generate more income?"
The often misunderstood reality is that while we are getting much more efficient and can handle more animals and more acres, growth on the farm also happens to allow one, or more, of the children to farm along side mom and dad.
2. I care about all the things you care about!
When I list the top concerns of our consumers - animal welfare, reducing chemical use, sustainability, food safety and nutrition, protecting the family farm- I am often met with baffled stares.
And then the response is always the same, "Of course they care about those things, so do I! How can they think I don't? Why would I be doing this if I didn't care about all of that?"
The problem isn't that we don't care. It's that we forget to explain WHY we farm they way we do, and we leave out how modern farming actually addresses all of those concerns better than any time in our farming history.
3. I love what I do, but this my job.
I share comments left online, where people claim they cannot trust us because we "only farm for money" or are "driven by profit".
The farmers always meet these comments with confusion, followed by anger. "Who out there goes to work every week without getting a paycheck? I love what I do, but we have bills to pay as well, and no one is getting rich out here."
The anger comes because most of the men and women sitting in the room during these conversations either have been before, or currently are, struggling to make ends meet on reduced margins and increased operating costs.
"The public wants to talk about the few years we had good profits. But they want to forget all the years we barely broke even, or the years we actually lost money."
The farmers also want to point out that they, or a spouse, and often both, have to work off farm jobs in order to be able to farm.
"It's not like it used to be. With land and machinery costs I can't afford to farm without having a full time job in town also."
4. It doesn't work like in a textbook.
The conversation always gets passionate when they start talking about all the non-farmers who have told them how they think they should be doing it, because they've read something online. One young man summed it up well this week.
"I was like that too- just like these people who have done 'google research' about farming. I came home from college ready to show Dad and Granddad how to do it. It took exactly one growing season for me to realize that real life farming doesn't work like the textbooks and college professors say it will. Turns out you've got to trust the guys who have been at it for 40+ years."
Many of them share a similar frustration of someone farming on a very small scale, or even someone with a garden, trying to offer up critism for what they do. "A lot of this trendy stuff works fine small scale. But it's not realistic for the typical size farm nor can it meet the demands on agriculture."
They are also quick to communicate how much their educations are contributing to the farm. As an industry, we are returning more young people to the farm with college degrees than ever before.
They are getting better everyday, but you can't just throw out what early generations have learned the hard way because of a college degree.
5. We want to tell you our story.
This generation of farmers is more eager than ever to share their story with you. They are popping up all over social media and stepping up within their communities.
A young woman said it so well, "I know people have all these questions. I just wish they would ask us, the actual farmers. We don't just want to tell them, we want to show them!"
Occasionally, the gap between consumer and farmer seems too large to bridge and I get overwhelmed.
But after a week like this one, of having conversations with dozens of young men and women who are passionate about being the best farmers our country has ever seen, I have no doubt that our industry is moving in the right direction - both in terms of continued improvement in food, fuel and fiber production AND in terms of communicating with an increasingly further removed public.
Kate Lambert grew up in northern Illinois, not on a farm but active in FFA and showing livestock.
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