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