Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ask a farmer anything! - from the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo

Thomas Titus, pig farmer from Illinois, Jill Mantey, U.S. Farmers & Ranchers alliance staff, and I represented farmers at the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Nashville, Tennessee.

Over 10,000 dietitians and nutritionists came to attend educational sessions and visit the expo.

The people:

It could have also been called a parade of health. I knew most dietitians were women, but I learned there was a type. Healthy, great hair and skin, outgoing, and apparently fantastic clothing. (Where is the app I can point at outfits and immediately purchase them? Please invent.)

There was the occasional male dietitian. I used the term 'male dietitian' with one and he corrected me, saying, "Mantitian. Advantage - no bathroom line!"


The issues:

When I asked dietitians what farming questions their clients or patients had, they almost always responded that they were the ones educating their clients about agriculture, and that often their clients think food comes from a grocery store. They often stressed how it's important to know where your food comes from, and they talked a lot about local choices and farmers markets.

Our booth said, "Ask a farmer anything!" We got ...

"What are the biggest barriers for you in connecting with consumers?"

"What is your goal in being here?"

"Is it true you take out all the fat in milk and put it back in?"

"Are tomatoes a berry?"

Pesticides, sustainability, environmental impact, GMOs, organic, animal care ...

You name a hot topic in agriculture, it came up. I found it incredibly useful - and it never got less funny - to introduce my family and farm by gesturing behind me. It was so great to be able to talk to so many people at the forefront of nutrition education about our business and lifestyle.


Public view of farming:

Over time, the public perception of farming has changed dramatically. When Thomas and I introduced ourselves as farmers, people often thanked us and told us they personally also wanted to be farmers - or hoped to be farmers someday. We got questions about soil for gardens, the easiest farm animal to maintain, and educational resources for starting a small farm.

A dietitian who also farmed said, "Farmers used to be considered country bumpkins. Dumb hayseeds. Now when people say they're farmers it's the cool, trendy thing! Fifty-seven years old and I'm cool again!"

But it's a type of farmer that is considered interesting. Small farms and farmers markets are considered good, and people are skeptical of big farms, corporate farms, and farmers they don't know.

A different dietitian said, "I know the food I'm buying at the farmers market is not the same food people are buying at fast food restaurants and grocery stores."

That was an interesting statement, because it really boils down to control. People want some control over the food they're purchasing. They can't produce what they want, because they don't have the resources, but they certainly know what they want. The hows and whys of what they want doesn't really factor in, because they've never had a farm as a business. But we live in a country where you can get pretty much what you want, and so consumers would like to be able to dictate how they want their food to be produced, what they want to eat, and the price at which they get it.

Farmers, in turn, want to have the best farm possible. We want to produce food consumers want to buy at a profit. We want successful businesses, healthy animals, good crops, and job satisfaction. We all want clean air, water, and soil.  We want to meet consumer needs. As people often say about farming, you have to really love it, or you wouldn't do such a hard job.

So where does that leave us? My husband Kris often points out that there are extremists on both sides of every issue and most people land somewhere in the middle. 

We all essentially want the same things - food, responsibly grown, healthy, affordable. So as long as we keep working together toward solutions that meet everyone's needs, we can all be happy.  (It totally works in Congress!)


One tool U.S. Farming & Ranching is using that we hope helps give a real view of farming is the documentary Farmland by James Moll. It follows six young farmers and talks about what their lives are like. It's a way to provide a counterpoint to documentaries that are not a good representation of farming.

I think the documentary does a good job profiling the farmers the producer picked. It's on Netflix and you can find more about it here. (But of course dairy farming is my favorite, and since they don't feature a dairy farmer, please feel free to ask me any questions.)

Lots of dietitians asked if they could show it in a class or to others in their profession, or to clients,  of course we appreciate any tool that helps get the USFRA message across - we're farmers, we're real people, and we're trying to run the best farms possible.

For instance, one dietitian said that she'd seen a drone video going over a farm, showing the massive pits of manure, which they then spray onto fields and pollute the environment.  I told her I'd seen that video too, and when I saw it I had a different reaction.  All the farmers I know invite anyone and everyone to come to their farms, tour it, and talk to them about their concerns. Manure lagoons aren't a secret. We have one, it's engineered under strict federal, state, and local regulations, it's managed, and we use all the manure in it to fertilize all of our fields to grow crops. Manure is a fantastic natural fertilizer. I told her a creek runs right by my house - I live right on my farm, and I wouldn't want to pollute my land and my water either, just like she wouldn't.

So yes! All of these issues are important to all of us. We're all in this together. Whatever way we can talk about it - in person, through video, through drone footage - let's keep doing it.

Fun facts:

- Thomas snagged me a selfie stick. Get ready for some farm selfies.

- Hairless kiwis exist! Zespri SunGold. You can eat them - skin and all - like an apple.

- Two of the most popular booths (tons gave away food) were Siggi's and Chobani - both are yogurts which use tons of milk.

- Dietetic students go through an internship. During a session a professor reported on student reactions to including farm tours in the curriculum. The main lesson the students learned? The students reported: "Farming is hard."

It's not the easiest job in the world, but it is satisfying. After all, Kris and I are farmers in a long, long line of farmers. We've done the same things that our ancestors have been doing for years. One thing that might be different ... this week I spoke with hundreds of people who care deeply about where their food comes from, and they tweeted and Facebooked about it to their thousands of followers.  Hopefully by continuing to work also in this way, we can help make an impact.

So, ask me your questions! Tell me your concerns! And while you're at it, please invent that clothing-buying app. If we can grow an edible-skin kiwi, can't we do anything?!

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