One thing about farming is that you have a tremendous amount of time to think while driving tractor, checking cows or walking the fields. Lately I find myself pondering people’s perception of agriculture and what truly should matter to the consumer and whether or not it is the same as what they’ve been told should matter. Nowadays you hear so many different terms used to label and categorize farming practices for better or worse. Terms like industrial ag, modern ag, chemical ag, sustainable ag, all natural, chemical free, pastured pork, free range chicken, grass fed, organic, no till, humanely raised, biodynamic and many more that don’t come to mind at the moment. These labels have meaning but not nearly as much as people often think and have become more of a marketing strategy or label of convenience rather then a fundamental belief in what you do and why you do it.
I have spent my entire life on the farm. During this time we have sold through conventional markets, to other farms or finishing operations and direct to the consumer. Quickly I learned it was better to listen more and talk less and through this I came to a few realizations:
1) People know what they know. This knowledge is too often obtained from short articles or advertisement that only focus on a small part of a big picture.
2) The loudest person in the room spreads the most information and generally has the least knowledge.
3) When financial gain is the driving motivation for someone, morals and conviction leave quickly. These people will slap lipstick on a pig and tell you it’s some rare royal line out of Imperial Japan.
4) You can avoid most arguments if you just smile and nod. As this is often the easiest approach, it is rarely the right one. By being silent we allow the “loudest person in the room” to be the only voice of influence.
Trying to place agriculture into tidy categories with catchy labels allow for confusion and manipulation. These labels mean different things to different people and can lead to misunderstanding or can be used to deliberately deceive customers. Organic means chemicals are not used, it does not mean animals are raised humanely, or the food contains much for nutrition or even that other farming practices are environmentally friendly. No till farming claims to be environmentally friendly due to reduced tillage and carbon sequestration, but this leads to greater application rates of herbicides and fertilizers. How many hours a day do chickens have to run loose for you to consider them “free range”? Can they live in a mobile coop that gets moved to new locations daily? Can “pastured pork” be fed a steady diet of processed feeds as long as they eat it on pasture?
The idea here is we need to have more of a conversation with the people raising our food. Farmers should be proud of the choices they have made and ready to explain them. I can respect someone who believes in what they do, even if I don’t agree with their choices. When farms offer both organic and conventional crops or grass fed and grain fed beef, I start looking for the pig with the lipstick on. They are focused on sales and profits and tend to avoid real conversations.
Now that I have rambled on, I would like to return to the original question, “What should matter to the consumer”. I believe the answer is “trust”. You can trust them to have an open and honest conversation with you and trust that their belief in raising the food is similar to your belief of what your family should eat.
Remember the question is always more important than the answer.
The right answer to the wrong question will rarely deliver the desired result.
Thank you for taking the time to hear my thoughts. Let us know if you like this. If we have enough interest, we might discuss other ag related issue in the future. We would love to hear your questions, comments or suggestions for topics. Remember, this is a conversation, if anyone is looking for an argument I will be happy to point you in the direction of a fence post you can yell at all day.