By RICK A. RICHARDS
NEW YORK. N.Y. — In the not-too-distant future, farmers are going to have to be as comfortable marketing themselves to an increasingly skeptical public as they are raising livestock and crops.
That trend – one that already has taken hold in pockets around the country – was center stage Nov. 16, in the latest round of the Food Dialogues sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA).
This discussion, one of three at The TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan, was hosted by CNN’s Ali Velshi, chief business correspondent and anchor of the program “Your Money and World Business Today.”
The discussion, “The Media, Marketing and Healthy Choices,” brought together farmers, nutritionists and writers. Kat Kinsman, managing editor of the blog “Eatocracy,” explores the entire food chain from the farm to the market shelf.
“Farmers are going to have to get online and put their story out there because no one else is telling it like they can,” said Kinsman.
That’s becoming increasingly important because the public is more removed from the farm than ever and many feel that agriculture isn’t telling them everything they want to know about where their food comes from, she added.
Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said he has gone out of his way to meet with the public and answer their questions. “Usually the people I talk to have a positive view of farmers,” he said. “I also tell them there are no free lunches and that what we do has a cost.”
The biggest public concern, according to recent national polls and questions from the public at the USFRA session, was genetically modified (GMO) products. “To us, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Hurst.
The problem, said Kinsman, is some people think otherwise and feel agriculture isn’t telling the whole story about the long-term impact on humans of GMO food. Craig McNamara, an organic farmer from California, said much of that concern comes from the growing disconnect between urban residents and farmers.
“There is a loss of connectivity to nature,” he said.
Richard Ball, an upstate New York vegetable farmer, is trying to create new ties to the city and has set up a vegetable growing program in the poverty-stricken South Bronx. “I take a portion of my produce from the farm every week and deliver it to the South Bronx,” he explained.
As that program has grown, bus trips from the South Bronx to Ball’s farm have become routine, getting youngsters and their parents out on the farm to experience firsthand what life is like and to show them from where their food comes.
“Food should be a kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum. Young people today don’t know how to eat or cook,” said Ball. “We have to ask ourselves as farmers, ‘Who are our customers? What do they want?’
“Our food system is so good that we’ve gotten people comfortable with the fact that they don’t know where their food comes from.”
Traci McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating, praised Ball’s effort but said more of that needs to be done. “Most folks don’t know how to cook from scratch. They need to learn those kinds of skills so they can take advantage of fresh produce like that,” she said.
And while there are growing efforts in that direction – and even in the burgeoning agritourism business – there are still deep divides on the political level when it comes to food.
“The polarization is awful,” said Hurst. “We benefit because we have so many food choices. We have to feed so many people, though, and we have become big by necessity. But being big doesn’t necessarily mean bad.”
Ball agreed, saying the country needs farms of all sizes, and at root that’s been the main dispute.
While the best answer, said Ball, is for people to get to know their farmer, that isn’t always possible. Still, he said most farmers are starting to open up to the public and show them what they do, how they do it and why they do it.
“Farmers’ markets offer the best entry point,” said Hurst.
“We need all sizes of farms,” said McNamara. “There’s going to be a huge transfer of land and wealth in the next 10 to 15 years. I mean, look at us; we’re all getting to be 60 or more and we can’t do this forever. We need 100,000 new young farmers to take over, and I think that generation is going to really embrace this message today. They’re doing it now.”
Ball said that while he’s comfortable dealing with the media and letting them get out his message, in the future, farmers will be doing that on their own through blogs and social media.