ACCORDING to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 300 million people live in the U.S. Of those, only 15% live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes as non-metro areas or counties. In fact, the numbers show that, on a broad level, people are continuing to leave non-metro areas.
That being so, growth may ebb and flow, but the distance between the rural and metro consumers' mindset in the U.S. will continue to widen.
There is a lot of rhetoric in agriculture about the growing disconnect between gate and plate — farm and food — and the understanding of common farming practices. In the past few months, I have realized a few things about how farmers react to the proactive approach the industry has begun to take in order to reconnect consumers with modern-day agriculture.
In my opinion, farmers are all too often "afraid of their shadow" when trying to talk with consumers who don't have an agricultural background.
Occasionally, some retired pig farmers would come through the Pig Adventure where I interned this summer. They always seemed to have memories of the "old days" and "how it used to be." Many offered encouraging words about the Pig Adventure, but others raised concerns about the transparency it provided for non-farm guests.
Is there a limit on how much transparency should be allowed? Does agriculture need to "tread lightly" or risk getting into a position it can't get out of? Those who believe transparency is not a good thing may, indeed, be "hiding in their shadow" and underestimating consumers' willingness to listen and learn.
If a farmer has a product he is proud of, no matter what that product is, people are truly interested and willing to listen before forming an opinion.
It is true that people sometimes have a negative idea of what farmers do on the farm, often caused by some propaganda they saw that came from someone opposed to modern agriculture, but even so, they aren't opposed to hearing about the processes and technology involved in farming. In fact, oftentimes, they are amazed by it all.
While at the Pig Adventure, one of my responsibilities was to give tours. That situation left me wondering, "If a farmer could have a five-minute conversation about agriculture and show people an aspect of what he does, could we (in agriculture) change the opinion of many people who unknowingly follow the 'anti' propaganda and form negative feelings toward agriculture?"
I do believe that the answer is "yes." While I know it can't be done alone, I believe that there is a special way for agriculture to have respectful conversations that can mean a world of change for our industry. In fact, here are a few reminders for those who want to have these conversations:
1. Don't be afraid of your shadow. Shadows are only present because there is light shining on us, and the time for us to step into that light is now. Bigger shadows mean more light on you. Take advantage of the opportunity present.
2. Talk about what you do. People want to talk to people. They want to know that you're a farmer and that you care about them. The more personable you can make your conversation, the more people will listen to what you have to say.
3. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Many times, we begin to talk about what we do, but then when a negative term or question arises, we quickly run back into the shadow. No wonder people are afraid of agriculture, if we aren't willing to talk about it ourselves!
4. Enjoy yourself! People want to see you happy and excited to talk about what you do. The light has never shined more brightly on agriculture than it does now. I'm proud of what I do, and I want to show others why. That is the thought that makes the whole idea of talking to others a bit more comfortable to me.
Hopefully, these words encourage some of you to begin taking steps out of the shadows. If you are worried about the response you're going to get, just wait until you see people's faces light up when you show them the farm.
I encourage all farmers I speak with to find a way to have these conversations — through training, social media, tours, presentations and casual conversations around the coffee table. There is no end to what we can achieve when we work together and step out of the shadow.
*Sam Wildman is an Ohio pork producer and student at The Ohio State University. This summer, he interned at the Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, where one of his responsibilities was giving tours to the public.