Yes, the producer. And, the consumer.
How to value the mutual need of those who grow food and those who consume it.
“If you farmed today, thank a consumer.”
Sitting in the back of a dark fairgrounds arena centered in the middle of the vast expanse of Wyoming’s southeastern plains, I turned my head sharply towards the stage. The speaker at the convention had just made a statement similar to one I’ve heard many times before, but it meant something entirely different.
“If you ate today, thank a farmer” is likely a mantra those of us familiar with agricultural advocacy have seen as a hashtag on social media. It’s one with good intentions. Yet, that spring afternoon in Cheyenne shifted my perspective. It’s not that I don’t think farmers do good vital work—because they certainly do—but it’s also work that farmers get to do because consumers purchase the goods they produce. The moment we lose sight of our mutual need for one another is the moment we spiral into defensiveness instead of dialogue.
Farming and eating: it’s a two-way street
At its core, farming is a business, and one that many farmers rely on to provide for their own needs. While our job may be harder than many, from the unpredictability of weather conditions affecting our crops to the non-stop care required for livestock, it’s still a job we get paid to do. Most of us aren’t running non-profits, so to expect recognition as though we are is somewhat disingenuous. On the flip side, many of those consumers who purchase the end product disregard the work that was put into it. Sometimes farmers find themselves caught between conflicting opinions from outsiders about how they should be growing food. This can make it difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely farm the land in the best way for our nutrition, our environment, and our financial needs. Yet, with all these challenges between the consumer and producer, we still need each other. How do we bridge the gap without discounting the value of one or the other?
I’ve seen some powerful examples from people who grow food and those who buy it, and there are two clear common threads that create an appreciation and understanding for both groups.
...from the farmer
Last summer during my internship in Iowa, some of my favorite days were those I spent in the combine with my boss’s father, Brian, a row crop farmer who clearly loved what he got to do. One July afternoon I sat in the buddy seat, mesmerized by the golden crop of barley as it collapsed into the combine head. I listened to Brian as he shared how he got started farming and that the desire to innovate and try new crops, practices, and inputs every year kept him energized and motivated. Here was a farmer who appreciated his work, and he turned that gratitude into a positive influence when he was in conversation with consumers; they appreciated his humble gratitude. When farmers have a deep sense of gratitude for the job they get to do, it creates a better foundation on which to stand than bitterness or an attitude of entitlement.
...from the consumer
My teammate Doster and I have been on a number of calls with FFA’s corporate partners this year, and somehow he has a new heartfelt story or powerful illustration for each meeting, all to share the power of agriculture and FFA. Even having been raised in town and with little exposure to agriculture until high school, he still emphasizes the meaningful work done by farmers. He has shared over and over how grateful he is for the hardworking American farmer, and for me, coming from a farming livelihood, that means the world to me. Just a simple indication that a consumer sees and values the work that farmers do is all it takes to build a powerful connection with that producer.
...from the farmer
My brother Paul (who I’ve mentioned a time or two in the past on this blog) is one of the hardest working people I know. He is motivated to provide for his family, but also holds a deep sense of responsibility to the consumers on the other end of the supply chain. Now and then we’ll call and catch up while I’m out traveling, and inevitably our conversation shifts to his next farm management decisions. If you were eavesdropping, you’d hear him ask things like “Should I plant sunflowers or canola next? Which variety of soybeans will bring the best profit margin? How do I better care for the soil in the next growing season without adding to the weed seed bank?” While I consider myself a farm nerd, I still don’t usually know enough to help him decide; but, the fact that he thinks so deeply about each of these things shows a sense of responsibility for the work he does. When farmers take responsibility for their own needs as well as the needs of their consumer, it establishes a greater sense of trust for that producer.
...from the consumer
I’ve been involved with a small group of farmers and advocates in Illinois who are working to advance soil health awareness and practices, and an unexpected new member showed up to one of our Zoom calls. He was a man from a suburb of Chicago who had never set foot on a farm, yet he had heard about the concept of soil health and decided to join a group of majority farmers to learn more. As a responsible consumer, he chose to go straight to the source, not simply to gain new knowledge for himself but also to support those farmers who sought to provide the type of product this man was hoping to purchase. Instead of making demands from afar, he chose to take responsibility. Effort like that isn’t everywhere, but it’s incredibly effective. If we want to make change, why not work with the people who have the leverage to do so?
Ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for others.
The speaker in Wyoming who said “if you farmed today, thank a consumer,” struck me as the agriculture version of President John F. Kennedy—“ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The more we focus on what others can do for us, the more we will feel unsatisfied. The more we put our attention on what we can do for others, the more we will feel fulfilled. Those of us who don’t farm: what can we do to better understand and support the farmers who grow our food? For those of us on the farm, how will we seek to better understand the consumers for whom we ultimately work? Regardless of what area of life we look at, the combination of gratitude and responsibility, practiced in both directions, is a powerful one indeed.
New to the blog? Curious about why I push for “yes, and…” in so many areas? Check out the intro post here.
Drop a comment here or on social media and tag @miriamrosah and @nffaevp and use the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21 to join the conversation.