Thursday, January 17, 2013

Our customers, faces and ideas

More than 90 percent of Americans live within 100 miles of the east and west coasts, in sprawling, urban/suburban swaths of densely populated humanity. Most of you who read this blog live out here in the middle of "flyover country," where the livestock outnumber the people.

Wherever we live, we're all human beings, and we all have the same needs and wants. For example, we all need to eat, and we all want to know that our food supply is safe and nutritious.

Those of us in production agriculture have a better sense of the quality of our product than those who are not farmers or ranchers. Unfortunately, as Mark Twain put it, "A lie can travel halfway 'round the world while the truth is putting on it's shoes." There's a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there, peddled to an agriculturally naive public. Our customers, those who consume our products, are naturally concerned when they hear misguided and often disingenuous horror stories about their food supply.

It's tough to get the truth out, particularly when food producers make up only one percent (or less) of the population. The good news is that, thanks largely to social and alternative media, we're getting better at presenting our side of the story.

Even better news is that American consumers, by and large, are no more likely to completely believe sensationalistic reporting on food safety.

I saw a great video the other day, posted on a colleagues web site. A tip of the hat to Amanda Radke at

The video was a production of  America’s Farmers, an advocacy campaign that showcases American farmers. Partly funded by Monsanto, the campaign is part of  a wide ranging effort to begin a conversation with our non-ag citizens. The idea is to show off the faces of real American farmers – what we do, how we do it, why we do it – in essence, to tell our story. This idea seems to be just one of many grass roots outreach efforts springing up in the ag community.

The America’s Farmers campaign does more than put up a web site with stories and videos. They do some impressive outreach and education and are even sponsoring the development of non-profit rural community groups through their America’s Farmers Grow Communities challenge.

The video was a sample of the outreach and education done by America’s Farmers. Using the famous ‘roving camera and mike’ technique, they roved the urban environment, asking people, “How much do you really know about Agriculture?” In several cities – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – included, they asked questions about the number of jobs U.S. agriculture supports, the number of people a single farmer can feed, and other good questions. The answers were enlightening.

And not because few – if any – of them could come close to answering correctly. They’re city folks, removed in both distance and in genealogical time from farming. How could they possibly have detailed agricultural knowledge at the tips of their fingers?

The thing that struck me about their answers was that they were all – or nearly all – quite thoughtful. And you could tell that all of them – or again, nearly all of them – were thinking hard about the questions. I could see the struggle play out across their expressions as they began to think about a subject they don’t often think about.

A New Yorker, when told how many people each American farmer feeds, was astonished. “One farmer feeds – feeds – 155 people? That’s amazing! You know, here in New York we’re so disconnected from stuff like this that, well, it’s hard to believe.”

When told how much food a growing world  population will need in the next 50 years, the same fellow said “…the United States, perhaps we should be exporting some of our technology and farming practices to other countries, to help them be more productive.”

The fact that he didn’t know that the U.S. has been exporting agricultural  technologies and techniques for more than a century, isn’t so important, in my mind. The fact that he was willing to think about the question and share an idea was, to me, exciting.

That’s another think I noticed. With the exception of one or two folks who already knew everything, the interviewees in this video seemed to be captivated by the ag facts and the story of modern farming, and several said they were going to start “looking things up.” I got the sense that they were excited about agriculture.

The same fellow quoted above said, “You know what, since you’ve told me all this, I think I’m going to have to spend a little more time and educate myself about this.”

Another fellow said, “I can’t imagine how hard they (farmers) must work.” A woman said, regarding the number of people each farmer feeds, “A hundred and fifty-five? I couldn’t make one dinner for that many.”

For me, as an ag producer, it was fun to see the faces and hear the ideas of a few of my city “customers.” It was exciting to see how open minded and willing to think about the questions these folks were. And it was good to see that despite the consistent anti-ag narrative embraced by much of the major media, some – perhaps even most – people are too smart to fall for the over-hyped and sensationalized reporting they are exposed to.

To see the video go to youtube and search “How much do people really know about agriculture?”

Check out America’s Farmers at

As I hauled cattle this morning I thought about the video and about how different my life is than that of an urbanite. I chucked a bit about the fellow who “can’t imagine” how hard I work.

I don’t think my work is so much hard as it is different. The vast majority of the population has never been exposed to farm work, but that doesn’t mean that they work less hard than I.

We farmers and ranchers have become widely dispersed experts in growing food. In that sense, though, we’re more generalists than specialists. My day started just before dawn with checking cows and breaking stock tank ice. Then I loaded cattle on the trailer and hauled them to Colorado and returned. Along the way a wheel bearing seized on the trailer. I pulled the wheel off, “triked” the trailer home, and dropped it off to be repaired. Then I finished this story so I could get it sent off by deadline. In a few hours I’ll check cows again.
A bad wheel bearing interrupted a cattle hauling trip Tuesday. Click image for a larger view.

Some parts of my job are physically demanding, some require a lot of discipline, some take a lot of intellectual reasoning. Rare indeed would be the city-dweller who could seamlessly step into my boots tomorrow. But the reverse is also true. I’d struggle mightily learning a new skill set and adapting to a different environment.

We’re all just people, and seeing a video affirmation of that fact was delightful.

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