Friday, August 11, 2017

What Questions SHOULD I Be Asking You?

When a lady walked up to me at the market and said

WHAT questions SHOULD I be asking you?

My first thought was SERIOUSLY? You really expect me to grow the food, harvest the food, package the food, market the food all in order to sell the food AND now I need to read your mind? That is definitely "above my pay grade"!

But, I didn’t say that.
Didn’t even roll my eyes.
Because another part of my job is to educate and enlighten while representing the farm in a pleasant way.

So, I checked my tone (and, more importantly, my facial expressions) and said, “I guess that depends on what you want to know. What would you like to know?”

Her answer nearly blew my mind.

I don’t know. I only know I’m supposed to ask you questions. but, I’m not sure what they are. Do other people ask you questions? WHAT do they ask you?

Wow. Just wow.

Over the years, I have fielded all sorts of questions. The quiz sessions can be great, interactive and fun. Although, other times they seem more like an interrogation and attack on my integrity. But, they help me streamline my conversational skills, hone my message and sharpen my wit…and on occasion deeply feel the need for another cup of coffee (or possibly something stronger). Did you read this one?

However, this was a whole new ball game.

Currently, folks are being told they need to ask questions (lots of questions) regarding their food.

questions like this make me just a little crazy
answers to this survey will NOT assure you of food safety

They are told they need to be concerned about farming practices and food production and they need to hold farmers accountable for all sorts of things. However, all too often they aren’t told exactly WHAT to ask…or what answer they are seeking.  And, if they don’t know what to ask, (and have a general idea of the desired answer) there is absolutely no way they will benefit from the answers…regardless of the information. And, just how does one hold unknown farmers "accountable"? All this focus with no substance leads to unfounded consumer fear.   Did you read THIS ONE?

Direct-marketing gives us the chance to connect with the customers and allay their fears (when they know what they are) but, most farmers don’t get this opportunity on a regular basis. So, I don’t take these conversations lightly. For one brief moment, I am the face of all of Agriculture to the concerned customer. This both a great privilege and an overwhelming responsibility.

I count on interesting Market conversations

Keeping this in mind, I am conversant on each and every production decision we make. And, I even understand many of those that we do not practice. But, when I use phrases like “food production” and “farming practices”, sometimes I see concern growing in their eyes. Perhaps my explanations sound too technical.  More than once, I have been identified as being part of “Big Ag” when nothing could be further from the truth. If I would only use the magical “O” word (that would be Organic), it would make everything better. (can’t…if you make more than $5,000 annually, you must be certified by USDA…and that is another post). And, the whole subject of organics is one more area of public misunderstanding.  The customers want to hear that the food offered at the Market is homegrown without  the use of any chemicals, pesticides or modern technology. Which, in reality, is impossible.

The folks that come to the Market with their list of questions don’t really want to hear that America’s food supply is safer and more affordable than anywhere else in the world. They’re hung up on food recalls and the reports of scary sounding chemicals and the possibility of inhumane treatment of animals…or in this case…just “something”. (we eventually pieced together that she wanted an assurance that food from the market wasn't like grocery store food. Grocery store food? She seemed to think that the store actually had some part in food production)  They’ve heard bits and pieces through the tangled maze of the internet, great-aunt Martha and the current popular food gurus (nobody should give the "foodbabe" any credence whatsoever) and they’re scared and confused. Occasionally, they are angry and belligerent and convinced that farmers everywhere are trying to kill them while making exorbitant profits. (wrong, oh, so wrong) As a vendor, it is part of my job to educate the seekers and placate the grumpy.

Believe me, Saturday mornings can be a real challenge!

I don’t know how folks who have never visited a working farm (of any kind) could possibly think they know anything about farming, but I’m pretty sure that Hollywood and Madison Avenue have affected the imaginations of the American buying public. For the record…those guys and gals don’t have a clue! The media portrayal of farms is woefully inaccurate.  In reality, Agriculture is a widely diverse science, providing millions of jobs as well as food and shelter for all of us. There are huge farming operations and tiny urban gardens and countless operations in between. All of which play a vital part in the diverse foodstuffs we take for granted.

Part of me feels that our customers need the whole picture. That they should be educated on pesticides and biotechnology (GMOs) and all sorts of farming practices. Someone should explain that organic does not mean chemical/pesticide/additive-free.  And, quite honestly, EVERYBODY needs to learn the actual definition of the word chemicalClick here.

I would gladly share my hard-earned knowledge. But, for the most part, they don’t want this information.

They want to continue to think that lambs are always cute and that any and all spraying is bad. That chemicals of any kind will kill you and that GMOs are certainly Satan’s spawn while the evil Monsanto corporation is trying to either poison the world or control it. On the other hand, they want to believe that organic equals pure as the Garden of Eden, while natural means harmless and that anecdotal evidence is on a par with scientific fact. That small farms are always “better” than big ones…and you should never, ever eat anything whose name you don’t recognize or pronounce. The list could go on...

…and you know what? None of these things are true.

NOT one.

Did you find that shocking?  Then, you may want to re-consider what you think you know about food and farming.

The fact is, the majority of adults in this country are SO far removed from any firsthand agricultural knowledge that they will quite possibly believe anything they hear when it comes to farming and food production. This gets more than a little confusing and concerning. When we have no knowledge of a subject, we become fearful and gullible. And, for some perverse reason, humans seem to actually like to hear bad news about others. So, rumors and mis-information spread like wildfire.

There are farmers who capitalize on this fear of the unknown. Their idea of a marketing strategy is to make all farming practices dissimilar to their own look scary and the farmers utilizing them out to be “the bad guys”. They perpetuate the mis-use and misunderstanding of buzzwords and vague terminology. To my mind this is simply bad form. Part of the reason I started blogging years ago was to help bridge the gap between farm and urbanity.  “Know your farmer, know your food” and all that jazz. I have connections to folks engaged in all sorts of agricultural endeavors, utilizing diverse practices in a wide variety of locations. And, I can honestly say, I have learned something from every single one of those people. 

Knowledge is power. You will not fear something you do understand.

…and since food is how we fuel our bodies, we would ALL do well to understand something of its production. A basic understanding of Agricultural terms would go a long way to eliminating the fear factor and furthering an appreciation both for the food on the table and the farmers who produce it.

If you have the opportunity to speak to a farmer, particularly one involved with growing the food YOU eat, don't squander that chance by thinking you have to ask questions to "hold them accountable" or sound impressive by using every single buzzword...but, make the most of that conversation and learn something. You may learn about food preparation and/or safety...the possibilities are endless.

You might just find that you expand your horizons, open your mind...and change your life.

No matter WHAT questions you ask.


  1. I wish I lived near to your market Barbara - your responsible attitude to food and the growing of it would encourage me to buy everything I could from you.

    1. Oh, I would SO love it if you were local and could visit and shop with us!

  2. As a recent Ag graduate, and a current worker in public agricultural history, I deal with these kinds of issues a lot. Your beginning story kinda shocked me though - I wouldn't have expected that at all.

    While it is true that we do roll our eyes and laugh those incidents off, ignorance about agriculture has started to become a major problem in society and it is one that we as ag professionals and front-line workers need to take very seriously.

    Farm Lassie

    1. After twenty years of being a farmers' market vendor, I can assure you...I've got even more (absolutely true) stories.

      You are right about the ignorance regarding all matters agriculture. And, that's incredibly sad. But, we make every effort to share knowledge and insight whenever we have the opportunity.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. This passage in your post is the most precient in my mind, "The fact is, the majority of adults in this country are SO far removed from any firsthand agricultural knowledge that they will quite possibly believe anything they hear when it comes to farming and food production. "

      This is why every school, not just elementary, but even post-secondary, should have a garden. Get the human soul back in rhythm with the seasons and the weather, n to mention the pest and diseases that are just part of the process of growing food.

    3. I think school gardens are an awesome idea. So are farm field days and any other interactions with food production.