Why Are Farmers So Misunderstood?

Husker Home Place

While most surveys say that farmers are seen in a positive way by consumers, what we do on modern farms is mostly misunderstood.

Published on: August 26, 2012

I was talking the other day with some well-meaning, but misguided urban folks about the impact of drought on farmers, farm families and rural communities. I was trying to explain how most of the corn we raise in Nebraska goes to livestock feed and ethanol. I was trying to explain the difference between field corn, popcorn and sweet corn. I thought I was making some headway in the discussion, when these lifelong city residents asked me if we had computers on the farm.

It was then that I realized the complete and total disconnect people have between their food and the modern farmers who are raising it.

They were asking me questions that were so basic that I recognized, maybe for the first time, the colossal job we have in communicating the ins and outs of agriculture today with our urban customers. They really have absolutely no idea about what we do. They believe that we raise our crops like they did on “Green Acres.” I’m not so sure that they believe most farmers use horses and hand plant their fields.

CORN IS CORN IS CORN: Not really, but the differences are tough to explain without a marker, a whiteboard and a little basic knowledge of agriculture to begin with.
CORN IS CORN IS CORN: Not really, but the differences are tough to explain without a marker, a whiteboard and a little basic knowledge of agriculture to begin with.

They do not understand the difference between farmers who raise produce and livestock for farmers’ markets and those who raise row crops for commodity markets. If you asked them if they prefer organically raised food, I’m sure that they would say “yes.” However, except in very broad terms, they have absolutely no idea what “certified organic” means, or specific differences in cultural practices between organic, sustainable and conventional farms and ranches.

I have many friends who could place their farms in each of these categories. I believe we should support all farmers who are supporting their families on the land, raising food for the world, no matter how they are doing it, so that consumers have more food choices. But I also believe that consumers should understand the details about each one. I’m no Eddie Albert, so everything I said in reply to the questions probably made no sense to the folks who were asking.

I politely replied that, indeed, farmers do use computers, Internet, cell phones, electronic tablets, GPS and a host of technological advances that city folks have never heard of. I said that it would take hours to explain how technology is used to conserve resources and improve farm efficiency today, and that agriculture is possibly one of the most advanced industries to date in the adoption and utilization of new technology.

My questioners were dumbfounded. I’m not sure if they didn’t actually believe me, or if they were completely stunned at the information I was giving them. They acted as if I had blown everything they thought they knew about farming out of the water. After our discussion, I was glad for that. I was hoping they would want to learn more about today’s farmers and ranchers.

It is no wonder that anti-conventional farming activists get so much traction from their misguided messaging. They can tell folks anything they want about the farm, and, in the absence of the facts, there is no way for those listening to differentiate between fact and fiction. It would be the same thing if someone told me that everything the oil industry or the coal industry was doing was wrong. I have no point of reference and no understanding of the complexities of these industries. I cannot make any policy decision based on previous knowledge. I have to learn more.

If farmers do not educate consumers about how well they have improved efficiencies, animal husbandry and cropping systems in the past 20 years to preserve our natural resources and care for our environment, then folks have no choice but to believe the other side.

I admire the farm and ranch families who are deeply involved in telling the modern message of agriculture to our nation. They are on the front lines in a debate that will frame our nation’s food security in the decades to come.

Be sure to watch www.nebraskafarmer.com and our September print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at www.DatelineDrought.com.