From Chicago Culinarian: Do Farmers Care?

September 2, 2010 at 4:29 pm Leave a comment

Do Farmers Care?

Those were the three most “Googled” words leading to farmer Tim Zweber’s blog (http://zweberfarms.wordpress.com), according to his analytics. Tim shared this statistic at the AgChat Foundation’s first-ever social media conference (Advocacy 2.0) held at Dairy Management Inc.’s headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. Yes, farmers tweet. A lot, apparently. More on that later.

No one seemed to budge when he mentioned this Google phenomena, but it shocked me to say the least. Do farmers care? What do you mean? Do people really think they don’t? The way these farmers were talking about their animals it seemed to me there were more furry-friend lovers in the room than a PAWS convention.

But apparently this “farmers don’t care” sentiment is well-known among the roughly 60 family farmers in attendance. In fact, almost every conversation, every presentation, every water-cooler discussion, every tweet seemed to center in some way around one quest – proving to the consumers, ie… non-farmers, the general public, you and I – that yes, in fact, farmers do care. They care about themselves and their families, sure, but they also care about the animals they raise and the food they grow. They care about you, and about the food you eat.

Thanks to Michael Pollan’s preachings, movies like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc., and other media shedding light on some of the unfavorable farming and agriculture practices in this country, farmers in general have had to fight an uphill PR battle so to speak to get consumers to realize that, yes, they do care, and no, the vast majority of them don’t just want to make a buck.

I got wind of these issues earlier this year when I started working the farmer’s market for Heartland Meats, a small Piedmontese beef producer in Mendota, Ill. Customers seemed unnaturally concerned about the commodity corn the Sondgeroths grow on their century-old, four-generation family farm, even though that particular corn had nothing to do with the beef they raised – it’s simply a way for them to stay in business so they can raise, produce and process this quality, artisan beef in the first place.

That aside (and feel free to contact me for more information about the Sondergoths and Heartland Meats), Tim’s comments reflected the general theme for this year’s conference – every farm has a family and a story – and they want to share those stories with you.

The AgChat Foundation grew out of a single twitter post by Michele Payn-Knoper, a farmer in Indiana who initiated a “tweetup” for other farmers to talk openly about agriculture issues, share their best practices, and answer each others’ questions.

The tweetup was an instant hit, and now, @AgChat has hundreds of followers and the live Twitter feeds have attracted thousands. The all-volunteer, donation-only funded Foundation has continued the tweetup tradition, hosting one each Tuesday night from 7-9 p.m. central time. A different moderator leads the discussion each week to control “noise” as well as keep the comments friendly, on task, and purposeful – at the end of the discussion, there’s a call to action for farmers to decide how they’re going to put their lessons learned into practice.

Essentially, the olden days of having to go down the road and ask another farmer advice, or sharing thoughts and ideas at Church or other community gatherings have grown old. These days, farmers are going digital. They don’t have to simply stick to their own community – they can connect with farmers around the country, even around the world.

“I like to call it bringing the coffee shop to the laptop,” says Trisha Braid Terry, an AgChat Foundation board member, active “tweeter,” and owner of family farm in Bloomington, Ill.

The digital gatherings, AgChat followers say, have helped empower farmers to better serve consumers in growing and producing for the four needs of this country – food, fuel, feed and fiber – the same four “Fs” these farmers point to as their strongest passions. Not only are they better at their craft as a result of the shared best practices. In addition, their armor of information helps them defend against commodity boards trying to take advantage and other economic challenges, not to mention bad, untruthful press.

More importantly, Braid Terry says, aside from brining farmers together, #AgChat is also a way, and a place, to connect with consumers.“I think when people are able to connect with farmers, to talk with them and ask questions, they worry less about things,” she says. “There’s more trust there, and myths are dispelled a little.”

Another theme during the AgChat conference centered on transparency. “The most important thing is to be 100 percent yourself,” Payn-Knoper said during closing remarks.

Transparency, that’s what’s so important, according to Payn-Knoper, Zweber, Baird Terry and other farmers who spoke up during the conference. These farmers have nothing to hide, as the media may think, or assume. In fact, they pride themselves on their work, their families, their products, and the legacies they continue to build, and they want to share that with us.

Payn-Knoper shared her farm story – a young child growing up on a farm in Michigan, only later learning that the farm went bankrupt in 2002, the same week the calf she raised for 14 years died of a heart attack. “It wasn’t a good week for me,” she said, but the experience was a turning point – she went on to build another family farm of her own. Her motivation? A candid photo she took of her young daughter walking a dairy cow to the barn, the sun hitting her blonde locks. “She really showed that heifer,” Payn-Knoper said with a slight chuckle amidst building tears.

Have a question for a farmer? Just ask. Tune in to next week’s AgChat tweetup at 7 p.m. Central, Tuesday, Sept. 7.

The opinions expressed in the above post represent the thoughts and feelings of the blogger, and not necessarily NYFEA as a whole.

Source: http://www.chicagoculinarian.com/?p=534

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Entry filed under: Featured Articles, Featured Farmers. Tags: , .

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