Getting to know you

Often farmers complain that consumers think their food grows in a package. We like to smugly point out that city children don’t know milk comes from a cow. Farm groups spend money on programs to educate consumers about American agriculture including the statistic that one farmer now feeds 129 or more people. I’m not sure this statistic leads to any greater understanding of where food originates. The number really doesn’t mean much. It really just points out that farms are much larger than they used to be and that there are fewer farmers than in the past.  For example, USDA statistics indicate that our imports of vegetables, nuts and fruits have doubled and tripled in the last decade. While American farmers’ production of corn, soybeans and grains has grown, much of that exported and is used to feed animals, not people. Americans, in spite of our agricultural productivity are dependent on farmers around the world for much of the fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables we buy in the grocery store. The United States is now a net importer of food.

The fact that we are feeding people with our work is probably more obvious in some kinds of agriculture than others, but I often wonder if farmers are aware of where their production goes. Do we really understand the system we are part of any more than the city slicker standing in the grocery store aisle? There is an especially large disconnect for farmers who are growing commodity products for a very complicated and far-flung market. Do we sometimes fail to see what we produce as food? When we haul our wheat to the elevator, do we think about it being the bread for a school kid’s sandwich? Does the kid eating the sandwich think about the wheat his sandwich once was? Farmers are concerned about yields, prices, and cost of production. The consumer is thinking about cost, convenience and maybe nutrition.

We haul our wheat to the elevator and there ends our part of feeding the world. We do not see the truck or train that hauls it to the mill, the mill that blends it and grinds it and bags it, the baker that bakes it, the wholesaler who distributes it or the grocer who sells it. We certainly rarely come into face-to-face contact with the person who eats the bread made from the wheat we grow. The distance between the farmer and the consumer is great. Not only has food traveled thousands of miles in most cases, but the raw product barely resembles what left the farm gate. It is not surprising that consumers and farmers don’t understand each other.

The consumer awareness of the origins of their food is growing. Even the USDA now has a web site called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” The web site’s mission is to connect consumers with farmers and create a better understanding of how and where food is grown and how it is processed. An additional goal is to increase consumers’ understanding of healthy eating. Maybe we could also use a site for farmers called, “Know Your Consumer.” What is it that our customers want? What do we know about where our production goes once it leaves our farm? How do our agronomic practices and our variety choices affect the nutrition of the food on the consumers plate?

The growth of farmers markets and the direct marketing of local food products is an expanding sector of our food system. This kind of marketing puts producers in face-to-face contact with customers. Farmers have a chance to talk directly to consumers about how they farm and why they do what they do. Consumers can tell you exactly what they like about the food you produce and what they don’t. They become our friends and their health and the nutrition of the food they eat becomes important to us. Our survival becomes important to them.

Probably the most important outcome of this kind of direct marketing and local eating is the education of both farmers and consumers that accompanies getting to know each other.
Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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3 thoughts on “Getting to know you

  1. Marcy Svenningsen

    I love the idea of “know your consumer”! You are absolutely right that the majority of farmers do not take time to think about who is using their products or whether or not they even like the products. Because you and Terry market directly to consumers for alot of things, you stay in touch more and see things from a different angle. Thanks for the article – it was thought provoking. P.S. Regarding fencing – in our area it’s not trees or grass that bother as much as our four legged friends – the deer – that knock our high tensile fence off the insulators.

  2. Sara T

    Hi Janet, I am a college friend of Britt’s in Seattle (she referred me to your blog). I enjoyed this post and your thoughts on the farmer/consumer relationship. Seattle is a lucky city in that if someone wants to buy local and know where there food comes from, it has become an easier thing to manage. There is a lot of agriculture around us. We have a number of CSA’s popping up now, some that involve multiple farms and some run by just one. The hospital I work at is a drop off point for one so I signed up. It is fun to chat with the passionate, kooky farmer when I pick up my organic produce each week. The farm is out of Carnation, a town not too far from the city that is chock full of small farms. We also have glass bottle milk from Twin Brooks Creamery at our grocery store. Again, the farmers visit the store to hand out samples from time to time and thank customers. They are growing like crazy which is exciting. It is amazing non-homogenized, slow pasturized milk! Finally, we decided to really bite the bullet this year and buy a quarter of a cow from a farm up in Mt Vernon, WA, another big farming area (Skagit Valley). We will split it with my cousin who runs a day care. It is fun to email with the farmer, discuss which butcher it will go to, etc. We can even visit the farm and meet the cow before its last days. Finally, my co-worker’s brother has an organic orchard near Yakima, WA and he grows the most amazing tree fruit I have ever tasted. Her son sells for him and we buy it by the case. It makes me so happy to live in a state with so many small farms. There is the element of ,cost – not that the food is more expensive per se but that you have to have enough on hand to pay the lump sum at once (this is the case with the CSA, fruit and the beef).
    I hope that the “locavore” movement continues to catch on and this becomes what sustains the small family farm. I just keep pushing people to watch Food Inc. What an impact that movie had on me! Lots of people I know have changed their mindset from “organic trumps all” to looking for local farms or co-ops of farms (Country Natural Beef from Oregon is one I like) who farm responsibly, organically or almost organically, especially when it comes to animal products. Organic today in the supermarket can mean ultrapasturized Horizon milk, beef from Ecuador, gigantic egg/chicken farms etc. Organic Valley is one of the only options I have found where it appears that the farms in the co-ops are small. Still, there is something great about buying from an individual farmer. So much to think about. Thanks for doing what you do!
    All the Best, Sara Temba

    1. janetjacobson Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Sara. I am so pleased that younger parents are taking seriously what they eat and what they feed to their children. I’m afraid my generation hasn’t always made such good choices about food. We took convenience and cheapness as our only measure for what we cooked, ate and fed our little ones. I’m glad many of you turned out to be smart, concerned and proactive adults in spite of us. The growth of local, organic food sources is so exciting..things Terry and I have been talking about and promoting for more than 35 years.

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