*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
I HAVE spent the past year pondering the gap that exists, at least in perception, between food producers and non-producing consumers.
I offer the distinction because many of us involved in the broader agricultural community typically refer to "consumers" as though we are not consumers ourselves.
Continually considering how to bridge this gap, I experienced something of an epiphany while speaking to an audience of vegetable growers last month in Syracuse, N.Y. This latest revelation is one of what I've come to think of as two or three significant paradigm-shifting epiphanies just since I joined the editorial team at Feedstuffs.
One of my first such experiences came after watching the "where meat comes from" episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" about a year ago. Like many in our professional community, I assumed that Winfrey and guests like author Michael Pollan would unfairly pillory meat production and processing while promoting a vegan lifestyle in a one-sided excuse for journalism.
It didn't happen that way at all. Winfrey's episode was both fair and balanced, and reporter Lisa Ling (and Pollan himself) did a far better job of explaining meat production to an audience of "consumers" than many producers could have done themselves -- so much so that my friend the "closet vegetarian" taped the episode for me because she was so impressed with how well the animals were handled in the Cargill plant featured on the show.
The most recent of my epiphanies helped solidify in my mind the single most important change agriculturalists must make in our way of thinking: We need to adopt a food-centered paradigm in the agricultural community.
I'm not trying to be cute or coy. Most of us involved in agriculture think like producers rather than consumers. We tend to think in terms of commodities rather than end products, e.g., cattle rather than beef, beef rather than a steak, a steak rather than a tasty, enjoyable eating experience.
Consumers don't think about cattle; they think about going out to a great steak house and enjoying a savory, tender rib-eye. See the difference from a producer focus and a consumer focus?
Keynoting the "pre-lunch provocation" at Cornell University Extension's annual Becker Forum, I enjoyed listening to several exceptional speakers prior to my address.
Neil Conklin of the Farm Foundation and Hugh Whaley of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, two stand-out speakers, addressed consumer perceptions of farmers and farming and how our traditional messages often fail to strike a chord with the average American.
Whaley and Conklin presented some great information that was backed up by fascinating data and research. As impressed as I was with them, the biggest personal benefit I enjoyed was meeting Schoharie County, N.Y., farmer Richard Ball, who gave my favorite presentation of the day.
Ball, proprietor of Schoharie Valley Farms, raises fresh produce for retail and wholesale customers on land once described as part of the "breadbasket of the American Revolution." His family's "Carrot Barn," the retail hub of the operation, is a thing of beauty. Listening to Ball talk about his passion for the land, the food he produces and the consumers (actually, the friends) his family serves inspired me, quite honestly.
This excerpt from Ball's website might give you an idea of what I'm talking about with this notion of a food-centered paradigm: "It's picked fresh daily starting with spring asparagus. Celebrate your summer with ripe tomatoes, tender sweet corn, peppers and all the summer farm bounty. Savor autumn and its color with the harvest of pumpkins, squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnips and other fall vegetables."
Ball told the growers in attendance about a partnership between his farm and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group started last year in South Bronx, N.Y. With 30,000 mouths to feed per square mile, the area of New York City known as the South Bronx is both a prime example of what is called a food desert and a tragic case demonstrating what happens when consumers are out of touch with food: The neighborhood has the highest incidence of obesity- and diabetes-related disease in the country, according to Ball.
He and other farmers are working to change that through their CSA, offering relatively low-income families the chance to spend their hard-earned food dollars on wholesome, nutritious, farm-fresh products rather than just on boxed, bagged, canned and otherwise highly processed alternatives.
Make no mistake: I have no qualms, concerns or reservations about processed foods, and I don't use the term "highly processed" with the same vitriol as many food "elitists" do. What I am suggesting, however, is that if your only source of calories comes from highly processed foods, you are not, by definition, enjoying a healthy, balanced diet.
Ball and the other growers in the room that morning in Syracuse were very clear about who their customers are, what consumers want and expect from the farmer and how to bridge any gap between producers and consumers. Their focus on food -- not products or commodities -- puts them on even footing with the consumer, giving the farmer common ground with the consumer so often presumed to be "out of touch" with food production.
Perhaps we can all learn a little something from a carrot farmer from upstate New York.