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Why Farmers Need to Host Tours
“I couldn’t work outside in this heat all day, every day.”
“I read a number of business magazines that include interviews with CEOs. Why don’t they ever interview farmers?”
“I’ve been using terms related to how food is grown in my posts without giving any thought to why I am using them.”
“I see they have some of the same challenges on their farm that we do.”
These are all comments I’ve heard after touring farms with a variety of groups including food bloggers, registered dietitians, teachers, mothers, school nutrition staff, 4-Hers, and other farmers.
Farm tours are important for many reasons. With most of the population at least two generations removed from farming, it gives people interested in how food is produced an opportunity to make connections with farmers. Many people talk about food, its nutritional value or how to cook it, but have never actually visited a farm, talked to a farmer, or had any education on how food is grown, except maybe their own experience as a home gardener.
During a visit they can hear your story – why you farm, how you farm, and how your farm has changed. If they can experience it, even better. Last year I took a group to a farm where they planted cabbage. It looked easy, until they were seated on the setter, trying to drop a plant into each hole as the tractor slowly moved across the field. After we finished, one participant remarked we did such a bad job planting we’d be fired and they felt bad for whoever had to come behind us to fix the mess we’d made of the rows.
One farmer talked about how her third-generation farm had always grown landscape plants and Christmas trees, but the birth of her son changed things. It takes at least seven years for Christmas trees to be ready for harvest, and that wasn’t holding his interest. The farmer realized she better start growing something else if she wanted her son to be involved in the farm. She switched to fruits and vegetables and now he can see the fruits of his labor in one growing season – a much easier way to capture a teenage boy’s interest.
Last week I visited dairy and grain farms and heard how important technology is. The grain farmer can run irrigation equipment from an app on his phone. The dairy farmer showed us the system that monitors the milk cooling process, storage of milk, and tank cleaning. If the temperature gets off by even 1°F., it sends an alarm to the farmer so he can check the system.
Even if the group you are hosting is farmers, it’s important for them to learn about your farm. I can tell you about the crops we grow on our farm, but don’t ask me about livestock or strawberries or apple trees. Those aren’t part of my story, but maybe they are part of yours. I’ve shared many other farmers’ stories in talking with consumers, stories I only knew from visiting the farm and talking with the farmer. I had a chance to talk with a cranberry farmer last fall, and have talked about what I learned from him many times since.
They can see and experience food safety at the farm level firsthand. I’ve been on tours where we had to disinfect our shoes; wear booties, hairnets, or other protective equipment; wash our hands; or follow strict guidelines when picking crops. Hearing about food safety is one thing – experiencing it takes that understanding to a new level. Years ago, I visited a hog farm with a group of 4-H members. We had to shower before going inside the barn, wear the jumpsuit and boots they provided, and shower again on our way out the door. Following the same biosecurity precautions as the people who worked there left an impression on how important keeping the animals healthy was – an impression I can vividly recall almost 15 years later.
People walk away from a farm tour with a better appreciation for the work farmers do. I’ve seen post-tour blogs that detail the sweat dripping down participants’ backs as they picked crops and how they wouldn’t want to do this every day. I’ve seen comments about the skill it took to pick fruits and vegetables. An awareness of how complex farming is, how many people it employs, and all the skills farmers must have today. I know after visiting an oyster farm I left with a new appreciation for what it takes to raise oysters and how long – two years until harvest. After seeing it takes six months for some types of cheese to cure, I don’t complain about the cost. Watching a farmer stand in the middle of his field, eating romaine lettuce he just picked is a great visual reminder that farmers eat what they grow.
I also think it’s important for participants to see how farms are not the same, even if they grow the same crops or raise the same type of livestock. They see how diverse farms are not only in how many crops they grow or livestock they raise, but in size, as well. I’ve lost count of how many cattle farms I’ve been on, but I remember that no two were alike. People need to see that farmers are like fingerprints – each one is unique. That can only happen if we open our doors.
I get it. Inviting people you don’t know onto your farm is scary, particularly in today’s climate. You wonder if they are coming with an open mind and willing to talk about what you do and why, or if they are full of preconceived ideas that won’t change. If they will take photos or video then post them online in a manner that doesn’t accurately portray what was happening. If they will say negative things because your farm doesn’t fit what their idea of a farm should be.
But if we don’t open our doors, how will they know our stories? How will they meet the families who live and work on these farms? How will they find out what we do and why in order to grow food that many take for granted? That 98% can help tell the story of our 2%.
If we don’t show them our farms and share our stories, someone else will. Someone else already is.