If you’re like my family, you don’t have much reason or opportunity to have a regular discussion with the people responsible for growing and raising our food. We order our beef from a local meat locker every year and supplement it with occasional trips to a local butcher. Outside of that, all of our food comes from the grocery store.
I recently asked my wife, “When was the last time you talked to a farmer or rancher?” She couldn’t remember the last conversation she had with a farmer. Prior to joining Kansas Farm Bureau, I’d have a similar struggle.
My background is like my wife’s. We are both removed from farm families in rural Kansas, though we grew up on opposite ends of the state. If the two of us have trouble connecting with the people growing our food, I can only imagine the struggles others face.
While our communication might be lacking, one thing that isn’t is our access to food. I can’t think of the last time I left a grocery store without an item I wanted. In fact, I usually buy more than I need – as my waistline indicates.
I’ve heard the repeated pleas for farmers and ranchers to tell their stories. It’s good advice, but any conversation requires at least two participants. While farmers weren’t telling their stories, consumers didn’t exactly burn up the gravel roads to go knocking on farmhouse doors, either.
“When I was a kid in the ’70s and ‘80s no one was talking about telling our story to the consumer,” Greenwood County rancher Matt Perrier said. “We figured they didn’t care, or they knew it already. I think we were sorely mistaken.”
The fifth-generation stockman said as fewer and fewer people grew and raised food, it left a void between farmers and shoppers. Lacking the direct knowledge, consumers glommed onto any morsel of information they could.
“I think that it’s kind of the perfect storm between one, the small percentage of people who actually raise our food and consequently the small percentage of people who know any of us, coupled with this whole foodie movement ... has made people passionate about food, and the story behind the food,” Perrier said. “These people on TV, their recipes aren’t any better than the Methodist Church ladies’ cookbook, but they tell a story to go along with it.”
Fifty or 100 years ago, people could have just asked grandma where their food came from, Perrier said. Because there are fewer farmers around, people have instead turned to social media.
“Consequently, the people who do want to tell a story about animal agriculture or agriculture in general, they are probably the loudest storytellers of all,” Perrier said. “Quite often that’s not a story that’s very representative of most of our farms and ranches in America.”
It’s a compelling one. Through a combination of technology and market efficiency, all consumers see is what appears to be an endless supply of food.
“When you don’t have to face the option of, ‘Do we have something to eat or don’t we?’ we get pretty picky,” Perrier said.
Picky or not, today’s farmers and ranchers are doing a better job of reaching consumers, Perrier said.
“We can tell it very well,” he said. “We just have to do it.”
“Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service.