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Ask me, I'm a farmer
If you've ever doubted that farming could be the life of the party, you've never visited Lapeer County, Michigan. Consider booking your next trip there in March, during National Agriculture Week, and you'll see for yourself.
Agriculture is the second largest industry in Michigan. Yet, a growing number of rural residents don't know their farm neighbors. Lapeer County Farm Bureau members decided it was up to them to reach out and to introduce themselves.
For the past 19 years, they've held a county-wide program called Project Red (Rural Education Day) to help third-grade students learn about agriculture. One day when the promotion and education committee was planning this event, the members began brainstorming about an initiative to engage adults.
“I've seen the positive reaction from our children toward farmers and agriculture. I wanted to bring that experience to adults,” says Kelly Lewis, chair of the promotion and education committee.
The idea percolated for two years. Then Lewis realized National Agriculture Week was a prime opportunity to do it.
The committee members planned a four-hour evening event with exhibits, activities, and a meal featuring food grown within 100 miles.
“We called it Farm-ol-o-gy to raise awareness that farming is science-based,” says committee member Teresa Fick.
Their modest goal was to attract 150 to 200 people to their free event. Imagine their surprise when 500 people attended. A sellout crowd of 300 paid $8 to enjoy the 100-mile meal.
“It was a huge success,” Lewis says.
Farm meet and greet
They began by inviting 20 to 25 local farmers to help host the event. Board member Jim Davis suggested renting a community center built by farmers for 4-H'ers. With help from committee member Phyllis Brown, they filled it with exhibits featuring the diversity of agriculture – from honey production to alpacas and community supported agriculture.
Volunteers greeted guests at the door and invited them to take a short farming IQ quiz. When visitors left, they were asked to retake the quiz to reveal their new knowledge. About 100 individuals completed both quizzes.
Hands-on activities included the chance to try Erlene, the milking machine, and to drive a combine simulator.
To encourage interaction and to put a face on agriculture, host farmers wore neon green T-shirts with the phrase, “Ask me, I'm a farmer.” They introduced themselves as they circulated at the event.
“ ‘Our Over the Fence with a Farmer’ had a large county plat map,” Lewis says. “Farmers could point out the location of their farm. Some people realized they passed it on their way to work, or they grew up nearby, or they were neighbors.”
Another exhibit featured the Farmers Care and Myth Busters Initiatives.
The dinner menu included pulled pork, garlic roasted vegetables, cabbage salad, rolls, and apple crisp. All items were donated by producers. Proceeds for the meal were applied to the community center's energy and water conservation projects. “We could have just had food samples from vendors,” Lewis says. “But the idea of everyone sitting down together to eat food grown and produced within 100 miles promotes a closer relationship.”
Lewis says the event owes its success to support from the Lapeer County Extension master gardeners, 4-H members, and FFA students led by instructor Tammy Hyatt from the Lapeer Education and Technology Center in Attica.
FFA students demonstrated how to inseminate a cow. Junior FFA students showed how to perform swine ear-tagging.
Local newspaper and TV covered the event, which featured live music and door prizes.
Lapeer County was one of 15 to receive a 2010 County Activity of Excellence Award from the American Farm Bureau.
Earlier this year, more than 60 farmers (and future farmers) greeted 400 participants at a second Farm-ol-o-gy.
Junior FFA members staged a barber shop skit about large vs. small farm agriculture. Local food safety inspectors discussed safeguards to protect meat.
Lewis says marketing outside your usual channels is a key to success. Here is more advice for planning a similar event.
1. Pool your talent. Involve a broad array of local ag-related groups and organizations.
2. Know your audience. “We kept asking, ‘Who is our audience and what are we trying to tell them?'” she says. “It kept us focused.”
3. Prime the pump. “Farmers are friendly but often not gregarious. We gave them conversation starters from the Michigan Farm Bureau,” she says.
Kelly Lewis | firstname.lastname@example.org