Farming and ranching is hard work - absolutely no questions about it. It is a career that many clock into as a kid and don’t clock out of until they’re pushing up daisies.
Farming and ranching can be inconsistent and unpredictable with unreliable weather and fluctuating markets. It is strenuous manual labor, long hours, and often times uncomfortable. There are no days off and overtime is a laughable concept. Some days, manure happens.
With all of this being so, why on EARTH would any person dedicate their life to such a thing?
It is not for the fainthearted and Lord knows it is not for everyone. But let me tell you a secret… farmers and ranchers do what they do because they love it. Agriculture is a labor of love, driven not by greed but by PASSION.
No, it is not all rainbows and butterflies, but beyond the blood, sweat, and tears that come with the job description there are plenty of feel-good “warm and fuzzies” of farming.
Allow me to share a handful.
2. Fresh Food
You know how your mom’s home cooking somehow is always the best? Well, home grown/raised anything is kind of that way too. Maybe it’s the freshness that makes it taste so good, or maybe it’s just your mind telling you it tastes better because it was your hands and hard work that grew it. Either way, it’s delightful.
3. S p a c e
*cue the Dixie Chicks "Wide Open Spaces"*
Imagine a world where your neighbors are fields away instead of feet away, a place where the sound of tires on gravel takes place of doorbells and the only thing obstructing your views are the views themselves. While other people have to take vacations to get peace and quite, farmers and ranchers live it every day. Morning strolls consist of rolling hills, open fields, and fresh air rather than stop lights and sirens. If you grew up on a farm or ranch, it's likely that moving to a town or city would be a bit of an adjustment. While the convenience of walking to the grocery store is nice, the serenity that comes from rural living is good for the soul.
If your neighbors aren’t already your relatives, it is likely that they are close enough to feel like family. All it takes is a quick phone call to someone down the road if you get stuck in the mud, need a cup of sugar, or just need an extra person to play cards. As a farmer or rancher, you are adopted into a community and family that extends far beyond your front door. Even though they may not always see eye to eye, they always have each other’s backs.
About 97% of U.S. farms and ranches are family owned, many of which have been in the family for generations. Agriculture is a profession, a lifestyle, and for many it is also a tradition. There is something special about flipping through old black and white photos listening to your grandparents talk about "good ol' days" on the homestead, or maybe watching as the little ones ride a horse for the first time or proudly head out for morning chores with daddy. Yes, agriculture is an industry, profession, and lifestyle but more than that it is a story written by the generations of men and women that have worked the land. Having deep roots and ties to the land is a special relationship well known by those in agriculture and one so few outside of it ever truly experience.
Less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in farming or ranching. Thanks to the dedicated men and women with a passion for what they do, others are afforded the opportunity to pursue their dreams and passions without worrying about growing food for their own table. At the end of the day, farmers and ranchers can be proud. They put in a hard day's work not only to provide for their family, but to provide for someone else’s as well. One farmer today feeds more than 155 people! Now THAT is something to be proud of.
How this popular slogan applies to agriculture... kind of.
If you have ever worked in retail, food service, or really anywhere that has to do with selling or supplying something, odds are your boss has told you at one time, “The customer is always right.” (I truly hope that if you are in the medical field, however, that this does not apply.) This slogan makes customer satisfaction of utmost importance, and satisfied customers = returning customers.
This got me thinking… in the agriculture industry, does this slogan still apply?
Whether selling food at the local farmers market or a contractor to a larger food supplier or distributor, at the end of the day farmers and ranchers have the same customer: the everyday consumer.
Consumers are on one side growing more disconnected from agriculture (the average American being 3 generations removed from a farm) and on the other side consumers are becoming increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. In many ways, this is exciting! In other ways, it is difficult.
Recently the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) conducted a study on three consumer groups: moms, millennials, and foodies. As CFI project manager Allyson Perry said, “When we did the research, we thought agriculture had an image issue, but then we discovered that, no, agriculture has a trust issue.” **
Consumers deserve more credit than I think some farmers and ranchers tend to give them. For one, they are what drive the entire food industry after all. If consumers decided one day that they didn’t like oranges any more, guess what? Orange farmers would probably start planting something else. Consumers overall aren’t dumb or ill-willed. Their worries don’t have the baseline intention of discrediting agriculturalists, but come from a place of deep concern and honest desire to give themselves and their families the safest and most nutritious food.
So are the customers, or in this case, consumers, always right?
Yes, and no.
Farmers and ranchers have been pretty good at listening to their customers. For example, why do you think there are now 39 cuts of lean beef? Is it because a group of cattle decided to join the Crossfit bandwagon? As entertaining as the image is, it’s actually because the beef industry has catered to the increasing consumer desire for lean protein.
When I hear consumers claim that eating red meat is causing infertility or that agricultural chemical companies are trying to poison the world, I’m not so gung-ho on the idea that the “customers are always right.”
Many agriculturalists are frustrated. Their customer base is more reliant on their accountant neighbor, Mary Kay selling cousin, fellow mommy blogger, or Zumba classmate for advice on issues related to food than they are on the farmers themselves. Statistics, science, and decades of research are up against popularized, misleading infographic Facebook posts and tweets shared rapidly by the thousands.
But let’s face it, the majority of people connect to other people better than they do numbers, stories are more intriguing than a research analysis, and recommendations from a friend carry more weight than a company’s.
So where do we go from here?
Consumer fears and worries should be validated. I’m not saying they should be reinforced or perpetuated if they stem from misunderstanding, but they deserve to be addressed at the very least. Telling consumers that they are simply wrong dismisses their concerns and further wedges the gap between consumers and producers.
Perry also mentioned that agriculture has been focused on “educating” consumers rather than connecting with them. **
Consumers want to hear the story of the third generation farm family dedicated to growing fresh produce or the professional football player whose passion is raising chickens. They are intrigued by the engineer that reinvented the way farmers irrigate their crops or the woman who revolutionized animal handling practices for the entire agriculture industry. They want to see the photos of farm kids learning how to milk their cows or read a blog about what happens in the day of the life of a pig farmer.
Sure, it’s incredible to see the improvements that agriculture has made over the years in terms of increased efficiency and environmental stewardship, BUT the most incredible thing about agriculture are the people within it.
Agriculture needs to meet consumers where they are, online, and put the people back into food.