Conversations to connect the farm gate & consumer plate

The advent of social media has brought the diversity of food opinions to clear light. I listen and participate in hundreds of conversations daily with people around the world. It’s beneficial to converse about food, its’ origins, the people who produce it and how the agrifood system works. It’s also immensely frustrating to see how polarizing food and farming have become.

Frankly, I don’t know why someone in San Francisco believes they should dictate the technology used by a soybean farmer in Kansas. Nor do I understand what right a person in L.A. has to tell me that we shouldn’t eat bananas in the Midwest. Likewise, I don’t believe that a modern hog producer in Missouri needs to condemn a consumer in New York City that wants their pork raised in a hut. I’m particularly passionate that agriculturists don’t buy into the negativity;  a conventional dairy farmer in Wisconsin and organic dairy farmer in Oregon shouldn’t be insulting each other about their chosen practices.

We all have a choice. A choice in the food that we buy.  And, of equal importance, a choice in the way we farm to produce that food. The markets will bear how the choices made by the majority of consumers; not a food elitist grandstanding for regional markets nor a large agribusiness dictating how products should be labeled.  My greatest concern is getting accurate, valid and meaningful information to people with studies showing 61% of consumers being confused about food.

Honestly, I’d be confused too, if I had not come from the food production side of the business. There’s so much information pushed by people who have spent little (if any) time on a modern farm. Couple that with political platforms and activists groups with hidden agendas – voilá, you have a climate of confusion. How should we clear this up? Conversations between farmers and consumers are a great way to start. Not just at the farmer’s market, but conversations with people who make different choices than you do. Conversations that involve listening and productive dialogue without agenda pushing.

As a mother, a cook and a consumer, I make the choice to avoid organics.  I’ve not seen the science that supports a nutritional reason to spend the extra money, know that some organics are raised in the same field/barn as conventional and don’t like a lot of the products approved for use in organic production.  Philosophically, both my husband and I believe in the responsibility of modern agriculture to feed a burgeoning population and oppose the system that inflates margins based upon a food label. And we adamantly avoid any food labeled “natural” because all food is natural.

Having said that, I support farmers who choose organic production. When it comes to raising our own food, we’re very careful to not over utilize chemicals, work to maximize organic soil content and care for our cattle in order to minimize medicines. And, if it’s possible, I like our family to have food that’s raised close to home. That’s our choice. We have friends who only do organic and are vegans – that’s their choice.  Whatever choice people make is their own business – as long as they’re making it based on accurate scientific information – and not unbalanced accounts on antibiotics from Katie Couric , the underhanded emotional campaigns of HSUS, or swallowing only the advice of a Berkley professor with “the Pollan pill” on Oprah.

I would be the last person to claim the agrifood system is perfect. There are companies that control too much of the market. Decreasing margins mean smaller farmers must either adopt to a niche or get bigger operations. Look no further than the milk pricing system if you want an example of government interference – and middlemen increasing margins. It worries me to see the increase in food imports and more companies moving production abroad. And, the agrifood system is complex enough that it’s really hard to understand if you’re not personally engaged.

The great news is that the complexity and size of this system allows it meet a variety of needs.  We can satisfy the organic lover in Vancouver, help the single mom in Indianapolis and feed the starving in Africa. The bad news is that many would like to see a food system that conforms only to their agenda. I think that’s a disservice to the freedom of choice. Consumers have a right to choose. Farmers also deserve that right. The question is where those two choices meet.