Friday, June 06, 2008

Thoughts on Farming and Public Perception

Lately a few blog posts have led me to think about farmers and public perception. First of all I wrote a post for the Epi-Log titled, "What You Need to Become a Farmer". The just a few days later I ran across a post titled, "Oh, you're a hobby farmer!", on the Nature's Harmony Farm blog. Both of those posts touched on different aspects of public perception in regards to farmers and also about what other farmers think about new or unconventional farmers. I think this is something (just like farm appearances) that we need to be thinking about, so below are a few of my thoughts.

  • That hobby farmer question comes up quite a bit in the unconventional farming world I would guess. I have heard it a lot along with the similar quote, "So, you're going to have an acreage and stuff." A common public perception is that if you are don't what is the convention in the area than you are not farming, no matter how full-time or profitable it is.
  • One thing that Nature's Harmony does (and many other direct marketing farms) is encourage people to come to their farm. This will help with some of the "hobby farm" quotes, but it is important to remember that if they aren't interested in your farm or the way you farmer they probably will never change.
  • When I was working on the post linked above for the Epi-Log I did a little research and found that in 2004 52% of all farmers had off farm employment. So, logic would then ask ... "are 52% of Americas farmers hobby farmers?"
  • But, in that same post and others that I have written for Epicurious people have commented on how much the appreciate what the farmers do. This isn't something that I hear very often, but maybe it is more common than I know...? But, what it does tell me is that there are people out there that care about their food and the farmers that produce it.
  • Which leads me to my last thought. How do you get more people to care about the food they eat. Of course it is an education thing and that will only happen with some initiative from both the consumers and the farmers.
So, what can farmers do to help change the public perception (both from the farming community and the consuming community)?


Yeoman said...

"So, is this a fun way for you to get away from the office?" Question posed to me more than once after spending all day branding.

"So, how's work?" Question posed to me numerous times while working cattle, at which time I thought I was working.

"So, is this a hobby?" Same-o, same-o.

"So, are you heading out on your vacation?" Question posed to me by elderly office manager, as I happened to stop in to my office before heading out to drive cattle, and was dressed accordingly.

"I saw you this weekend . . and you were dressed like a cowboy!" No kidding.

Ah yes, the hobby farmer question.

I have no answer to your question, but good luck in trying to get it addressed. You're tapping into a very deep seated, and long lasting, matter of perception that's at least a century old.

At one time, it was very, very common for farmers to have other occupations, and still be regarded as farmers. John Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, and nobody saw any conflict with that. Thomas Jefferson was a planter (probably about as close to a huge production farmer, in 18th Century terms, as we could come) and a lawyer, and a home grown engineer. He's celebrated for that. Zacharey Taylor, who became President, was a farmer the entire time he was a career Army officer. Nobody thought that odd.

Some time in the late 19th Century, or early 20th Century, however, things changed. Progress was imagined to be in the cities. If you stayed on the farm, you were staying behind. Many farmers wanted their kids to leave the farm, and a view grew up that farmers were "hicks".

That view carries on. So, as a result, society doesn't want to believe you if you say you are a farmer.

My family has roots in agriculture in this country since the 1840s. We've never been fully out of it, although we haven't ever been able to be fully in it either. My wife's family has been full time agriculture as long as anyone can tell. A significant part of our annual income is farming (ranching) based.

No matter. I have a law degree. So, with rare exceptions (oddly, including amongst the exceptions lawyers, who are amongst the least likely to think pleasant thoughts about the law) people just can't grasp that this isn't a hobby. You can tell them that, but there's no way they are going to believe you. I'm a lawyer. So, the other thing must be an odd hobby. You have a role in your church, so the farming is something cute you do as a hobby.

About the only thing I can think of is to keep on keeping on. Eventually, some will clue in that it isn't a hobby. And you don't want to concede, in your view, that part of what they say is right, as once you do, the farming will become a hobby, and you'll never get where you want to go.

Yeoman said...

As an aside, more than once, I've been tempted, when posed this question by urban dwellers, to turn it around (although I'll confess that I get the question just as much from agriculture folks). I never have, but geez would it be fun.

"No, is practicing law a fun hobby for you?"

"No, this is a job, but how's that hobby banking working out?"

You see what I mean.

Andrew the Organic Maven said...

Ethan, the best way to change public perception is keep doing what you're doing!
Your writing and on-ground actions will win out in the end, and it's not a battle here, although sometimes it feels like that I'm sure.

We are launching our CSA next week, into a market place that has no real knowledge of this type of distribution model as their are only a handful of CSAs in Australia. All the people that we've spoken with are very supportive, but given that we are only new to this valley (move in 9 months ago) I'm sure some of the old timers are shaking their heads.

We are only looking for 25 families to supply this year, and then grow it over the next two years to 100. So obviously we are going to upset the mega producers any time soon, but I'm sure that the clients we find are ones who will appreciate what we produce, the love and care that goes into what we do, and how our actions in tandem with our clients increase the sustainability of the planet.

Economically, of the four of us who live on the farm, three will continue to bring in off farm income for some time to come.

And lastly, who cares what the neighbours, friends, families and passers-by think. We are doing this because it's an expression of who we are in the world and the difference we can make.

All the best.

Rich said...

"...A common public perception is that if you are don't what is the convention in the area than you are not farming, no matter how full-time or profitable it is..."

The question is how is conventional farming defined? I've recently started paying even more attention to the farms in my area and am surprised at what I began to notice: beef cattle operations of all sizes with most breeds of cattle; farms of various sizes growing wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, forage sorghum, alfalfa, and corn (unusual for this area); a number of small vineyards; a wool sheep ranch about 10 miles away; a farm raising replacement dairy heifers about 10 miles away; a small (~50 head) dairy; a hair sheep ranch about an hour away; a number of places with boer goats; a fallow deer farm (also has beehives and sells honey) less than 4 miles away; a registered longhorn ranch about 5 miles away; a buffalo ranch selling both grass-fed bison meat and grain-fed?! bison meat about 15 miles away; a confinement hog operation about 10 miles away; a u-pick-it orchard/berry patch; last weekend I even saw a "new" market garden (or CSA?) using horses to pull their cultivation equipment about 6 miles away.

Until I recently started thinking and reading about "unconventional farming" I didn't realize how many different sorts of farms were located in the area. I live in a pretty "normal" area, and if such a wide variety of farms are located here, then most other areas around the country probably either already have or have the potential to support a similar variety of farms.

What kind of reaction do you think the guy raising fallow deer and also selling honey gets from people when he tells them what he does for a "hobby"? I doubt if anybody's comments will change his mind about pursuing his "hobby".

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