OPINION: 5 Things about Food and Farmers I Wish Everyone Got

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Some days my enthusiasm for sharing agriculture’s story overflows, and then there are days I just want to stay in bed and pull the covers over my head. Some days I laugh at the things people believe about food and farmers, while I really want to pound my head against the wall.

It seems we are in a never ending battle, especially when we are up against Dr. Oz, the fitness guru du jour, or Facebook friend who shared an article. 

However, I am convinced my job would be infinitely easier if every person understood a few key points:

  1.  The family farm is not dead. Despite what Willie Nelson wants you to believe, family farmers are alive and well. Some are large. Some are small. Some are incorporated. Unless it is a hobby, all true family farms are businesses interested in making a profit. The successful family farms have learned to adapt to changing markets and situations. Some grow to support more family members. Some do not. There are fewer farms producing our food, but let’s not assume that giant corporations have gobbled them up.
  2. There is no such thing as hormone-free food. All living things produce hormones, and if our food once came from a living thing, plant or animal, we are ingesting hormones. Some food companies are marketing poultry and pork as “no hormones or steroids added,” which I believe adds to consumer confusion. All poultry and hogs are raised without the use of hormones and steroids, because it is illegal. I heard one mom say she would prefer to purchase brands labeled as such, but since they were more expensive, she had to purchase those that did have hormones. It makes me upset to think she feels guilty for her purchase. While hormones can be used in other animals like beef and dairy cattle, many do not realize that plant foods like soy, cabbage and others have exceedingly higher levels of hormones present. In fact, an 8 oz. serving of cabbage has 1,000 times more estrogen than an 8 oz. steak from a hormone implanted steer. Some point to hormones in food as the cause of early puberty in girls, but all the studies I have read says there is no correlation.
  3. Farmers don’t want to use antibiotics, pesticides, and fertilizers. In a perfect world, farmers would not need to protect their crops and animals from disease and pests, and all soil would provide the perfect nutrition for maximum growth. But let’s be honest. That world does not exist in many places. Even organic farmers need to use some sort of control and yield boosting mechanisms. These products and the labor and energy required to apply them are expensive and reduce profit. Every farmer I have talked to uses every input as judiciously as possible. It just makes economic sense.
  4. Today’s technology benefits the consumer and the environment. The thought of drones, huge planters and combines, genetic modification, and electronic pig feeders make those that long for the idyllic farm of yesteryear very nervous. Anyone who believes these technologies are only in place to make farms larger may be missing some other important benefits. When a farm of any size can be more efficient, it reduces their cost of production, and that savings is passed on to the consumer. Technology also works to reduce environmental impact. Farmers can now pinpoint specific areas of plants that need nutrition. Farmers are saving soil and reducing fuel use. Improved genetics are reducing chemical use. Improved technologies are being used by all size farms and farm types. Providing more affordable, safe, sustainable food is the ultimate goal of our farmers. I applaud the farmers that still want to invest more sweat equity into their operations, but let’s remember that we will have to pay for their added time.
  5. Local, natural, organic, safe, etc. do not mean the same thing. I love that more people want to support their local farmers and it is providing more marketing opportunities, so I have a difficult time deciding if the assumption that local food is somehow infinitely “better” is benefiting or hurting our farm community. The food that is sold at the local farmers market may not be any more nutritious or safe than that produced by a farmer 500 miles away. Produce may taste better for sure since it can get to market much faster. I also find it interesting that putting a face on our farmers makes people feel better about our food. Does the mom farmer toting her kids around the fields convince you that she is not using any pesticides? It works for many, and those of us in the farmer PR world are using that to our advantage. I encourage local. I encourage everyone to have conversations with our farmers to learn what certain labels mean. I encourage our farmers to be honest so people can make the best decisions for their families. What I don’t want to encourage is for anyone to assume that farmers who do not market direct to consumers are part of what’s wrong with the food system.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to ask any questions or start a discussion below. 

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Jennifer Elwell is Executive Director for Kentucky Agriculture and Environment in the Classroom and has dedicated more than 20 years sharing the story of agriculture. She was previously the communications director for the Kentucky Corn Growers Association and Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association, a Kentucky 4-H alumna and graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.