Who Are the Farmers, Anyway?

My Generation

Food Dialogues, perceptions, farmers markets, and consumers. Farmers are not who they think we are.

Published on: June 20, 2013

You know what makes a great evening? Good food, good company and good conversation. And I found all three, in spades, Wednesday evening.

I was invited to a dinner with a group of food and farm bloggers, following the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance Food Dialogues in Chicago. We dined at the Little Market American Brasserie in Chicago and, gathered around a big hearty table, the food was delightful. And complex, if you spend much time thinking about how it got there. Which is exactly what we did.

Among our company was Louisa Chu, a food blogger for WBEZ public radio station in Chicago. We talked a lot about the conversation from the Food Dialogues that day, and what transparency really means. She asked us a lot of questions about our farms, and our lifestyles, and what we learned at the Food Dialogues that day. I wanted to know what her readers thought about us, however: amid all the romanticism regarding farmers markets and the antagonistic toward anything deemed large or corporate in agriculture, do her readers know who we are? This agriculture that we spoke of around the table – families working together and making decisions about crops and management and using technology like GPS and variable rate planting and fertilizer application, to improve soil and efficiency and yield, and who are raising a crop, a family and a business – do they know we even exist?

Our dinner conversation was peppered with observations from the days Food Dialogues, held at Kendall College.
Our dinner conversation was peppered with observation's from the day's Food Dialogues, held at Kendall College.

My fears were confirmed; like much of society's polarized views, so too are the views of urban Chicagoans regarding agriculture. Louisa allowed that many of her readers and friends likely lean left and want to embrace a local, romanticized version of the farmer as someone who's working but maybe not in it for the money. On the other end of the spectrum, they imagine a large corporate farmer, greedy and big on CAFOs. She was not incredibly encouraged that they know about "us" – the vast middle ground, made up of families who farm several hundred, if not thousand, acres and make up 95% of all agriculture in Illinois (and, technically, nationwide).

It reminded me, immediately, of the Illinois Farm Families research on consumer perception. When they showed Chicago consumers several photos of farmers and asked them to choose the one they liked best, they resoundingly rejected the one of the traditional farmer in Carhartts and seed corn cap near the grain bin and instead chose the one of the guy wearing a straw hat and a t-shirt with produce pictured on it, working at the farmer's market.

(This would be a good time to point out that there's nothing wrong with that image or with those farmers. Specialty growers are an exceptional segment of Illinois agriculture. Amen.)

It's disheartening, sure. Louisa herself acknowledged that she'd spent time this week covering the urban agriculture project in Chicago, which sought to turn vacant lots on the south side into urban garden oases. "But then what?" she asked. "Who's going to work in them? And it's not like it's going to provide enough food." Indeed. I speak from experience when I say that gardens sound wonderful in the spring, and less so when it's 100 degrees in late July and the lambsquarter threatens to take over the green beans, and pretty much anything else. Growing food is labor intensive.

(This is, in essence, why people left the farm historically and now just 1.8% of us are farmers. But I digress.)

And I wish there were a positive take-away here, some sort of "we should do x and x and it will fix this." But there's not. There are powerful and loud voices who have financial incentive to make sure folks in Chicago think small, farmers market-type farmers are the only ones who should exist. But I think, in the end, we can only keep chipping away at it. Keep holding events like those of USFRA and Illinois Farm Families, and reaching out to groups of influencers. Keep holding Food Dialogues. Keep inviting classrooms to your farm. Keep adopting legislators and bringing them out to your farm. Keep chipping away. It's got to help. Right?

What do you think? Are you surprised by what they think? And what should farmers do – or continue to do? What should we do differently? Share your thoughts below.