In just a couple of months, land across New York will once again come alive with the beauty of springtime. Planting will commence, orchards will begin to bloom, and farmers' markets that were closed for the winter will open their gates for what will hopefully be a bountiful season. However, you don't have to wait for the ground to thaw to start planting seeds. Now is a good time to start thinking about growing agriculture's reputation in your community.
The Beekman Boys, who turned their farm in Sharon Springs, N.Y., into a reality TV show and a growing merchandise empire, once told me that nowadays a farm doesn't stop at the fence line. In this world, where there's a growing interest among consumers in knowing where their food comes from, what happens on the farm shouldn't stay on the farm. It's important for farms of every size and convention to show off what they do well. Not only will this better educate consumers, but it will also help clear up the misconceptions that farmers seem to be bombarded with every day.
The New York Farm Bureau (NYFB) recently held a workshop titled "Opening the Barn Doors to Open up Minds." It was an opportunity for a number of farmers and agriculture educators to discuss how to host a farm tour. These are a great opportunity to present your farm in a favorable light to your neighbors.
Considerable planning is involved; you have to coordinate everything from parking to establishing a planned route with stops to talk about particular aspects of the farm. It's also necessary to make a connection with your visitors. They're more likely to remember the personal stories you share about life on the farm than the number of cows you have. Having that personal connection builds trust and understanding.
One should also not shy away from tough questions that may come up during a tour. No one can explain your farming practices better than you. Most people are simply looking for information - an explanation can certainly clear up any confusion.
You can also open up the barn doors to the Internet world. With social media dominating so much of the discourse today, farmers need to be part of the discussion. People respond best to pictures and videos when you create a Facebook page. This gives you complete control over showing off the many aspects of farm life. It's also a way to continue to have discussions with consumers. That can be a scary thing to someone who is leery of being attacked. Let's face it: Farming is a very personal business. The farm is often tied to generations of one family. It's about a way of life that connects to one's traditions of hard work and caring for the land and animals. Opening all of that up to potential criticism can be difficult, but if farmers don't put themselves out there and tell their stories, they may not like how others tell their story for them. There must be a balance.
It's also necessary for people involved in agriculture to respond to any negativity they may see posted online. Be willing to counter a social media post you know to be false or respond to a news story by posting a comment on the newspaper's social media page. Even go so far as to write a letter to the editor. Agriculture needs defenders. Often people who have never set foot on a farm think they know best. Granted, they may have legitimate opinions, but it's still worthwhile to engage in a civil discussion so the last word said about farming isn't something that works to tear down agriculture.
NYFB has kicked off its "Every Farmer" campaign. The campaign aims to drive home the point that every farmer needs the farm bureau and vice versa. The same can also be said for farmers needing other farmers. There are many kinds of farms and many ways of production. Every farmer works their land and raises their livestock based on what is best for them, their farm and their values. Despite those differences, farmers have much in common. They all want to produce a quality product and have a profitable business. They all battle regulatory burdens, tax issues and, of course, Mother Nature. It's important for farmers not to lose sight of their commonalities. Building up one's own farm practices shouldn't involve tearing down another's when publicly sharing your story.
As you prepare for another harvest season, don't forget to sow the seeds you should be planting in people's minds. The positive reaction to agriculture can only grow, which will benefit us all - farmers and consumers alike - in the long run.
Steve Ammerman is the manager of public affairs for the New York Farm Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.