Why Consumers Don’t Understand Agriculture

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Consumers today do not understand agriculture: where their food comes from and how it is produced.  The agricultural sector expends a good deal of energy trying to bridge this gap, a task that has been made more important and more difficult in recent years. But teaching consumers how their food is produced will not bring them any closer to understanding farmers.

What attracted me to agriculture and has kept me covering this industry for over 35 years is the character and passion of farmers. The men and woman who work the land and populate rural America have a worldview that is drastically different than most of the rest of our society.  It is something that is hard to describe and really does not come through in educational and promotional pieces on agriculture.  You can see glimpses of it in some farmer blogs, but most of these try too hard to be expository and focus on the how rather than the why of farming. A few years ago, a seed company produced a series of videos called Why I Farm. While the series told some great stories, it never really got to the heart of the matter. This is because, in my experience, farmers don’t like to talk very loudly about why they farm. They will talk for hours about their farm, but the deep down forces that keep them going and guide their decisions is hard to find.

I have found one of the best ways to really understand the heart of a farmer is to just hang around and pay attention. Every now and again, it will slip out and knock the wind out of you with its power and depth.   Last week during a panel discussion on immigration, several farmers were speaking in front of several hundred journalists about the impact immigration reform will have on agriculture.  The subject came up of replacing a farm workforce with automation. Technology has made it possible to automate many jobs on the farm today with robotic milkers, self-driving farm equipment, and drones.  Suddenly, one of the farmers on the panel broke down and started to cry.  She then began to talk in very personal terms about her feeling that her employees were the heart and soul of the farm and how important they were to her personally.  This farmer could not conceive of replacing her employees with machines, even if it would save money. Another farmer on the panel, who uses a lot of seasonal and migrant workers, talked about how he had the chance to buy a machine that would harvest his crops which were currently being hand-harvested. He said this machine could replace up to 60 members of his crew.  He made the decision not to buy the machine, in part, because of the impact the loss of 60 jobs would have on his community.

I have seen this kind of viewpoint expressed by farmers about the land they farm, the animals they raise, and the food they produce.  It is rare to find this kind of thinking in the corporate world. Yet consumer and activist groups often characterize farmers as not caring for the land, the animals, or the environment.  Regulators, who have never been on a farm, feel they know better than the men and woman who work the land. Until consumers and policy makers begin to understand how farmers really view their farms, their industry, and their role in society,  there will continue to be a gap between those who farm and those who consume.

By Gary Truitt

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