Editor’s note: Please enjoy this column by Dr. Rosmann from 2015.
How farmers take care of their land and their animals is an opinionated and emotionally sensitive topic for almost all farmers. Their feelings are understandable.
Any threat to the ability of agricultural producers to meet basic human needs for food and materials for clothing, fuel and shelter raises alarm bells because of their “agrarian imperative” to produce the essentials of life. The source of the threat does not matter, whether it is low markets, undesirable government policies, adverse weather or something else.
There are many disputes between individuals and organizations over how food, fiber and renewable fuels should be produced. Several farmers I contacted shared their thoughts on the public perception of farmers.
Their comments motivated me to ask several other farmers, “Does what Americans think about agriculture matter?” Of the 10 farmers I spoke to or exchanged emails with, seven were from Iowa and one from Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska.
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All but one agreed that the general public’s perceptions of agriculture deserve more attention and response than they get from farmers. Farmers varied in what they felt they should say.
Agricultural production methods that respect the people engaged in agriculture, as well as land, water and air as their primary concerns, are deemed likely to succeed in public opinion. A fair income is expected by nearly all Americans, commentators said, but not at the cost of resource exploitation that harms current or future producers and their families, the resources needed for agriculture, or the consumers of agricultural products.
Only a small minority of agricultural producers regularly violate environmental and health standards, farmers acknowledged. Two people said that habitual offenders seemed more concerned with profit and disregarded the damage caused by their production methods.
Three farmers said that habitual offenders have the right to farm as they wish, but must bear the consequences. They said habitual violators of accepted conservation and health practices and ethical standards of animal husbandry not only attract negative public attention, but deserve public outrage, such as being questioned in person, by the press or face criminal charges.
All but two of the farmers I interviewed told me that violators harm the public perception of agricultural producers and sometimes cause rule changes and legislation that end up being a burden on producers.
“What can agricultural producers do to advance an accurate understanding of their agricultural goals and methods? I asked the farmers I visited. Here are their recommendations:
Individual farmers should contact legislators and government officials who have a say in farming methods with their opinions and recommendations.
Speaking with individual farmers to voice their recommendations can be helpful, but it depends on the relationship.
Although difficult and often avoided, speaking to the media about agriculture may be necessary because farmers understand agriculture better than anyone and the public likes to hear directly from farmers.
Everyone, including farmers, should care about the planet and its ability to feed people and survive into the future.
Two people said that visitors to farms with buildings and land where animals (or poultry) are kept should not be allowed to take photos without permission from the owners; owners should also review stories and images before they are made public.
Two other people said that not allowing visitors or photographs raises suspicions that these producers have something to hide.
All farmers are concerned that visitors contaminate their premises and their animals (or poultry) with disease and said the public should acknowledge and respect this concern.
Two people who are organic producers welcome visitors and media inquiries and said other crop producers should welcome visitors, but they understand why other livestock and poultry producers might feel differently.
One person thought that “stewardship models” of farming should take precedence over “business models”, which he said dominate farming, so that farmland remains fertile even if farming financially unsuccessful
Four farmers said that some media and consumers have made ideological conclusions about farming and only seek information that confirms their beliefs; these people should not be “written off” even if they do not contribute to a useful discussion on the future of agriculture; they need accurate information.
The perception that ownership of agricultural land falls into the hands of a few is only partially correct as smallholder farmers are increasing rapidly; one person said that landowners who want to sell farmland should consider offering their land in smaller lots so that the many small producers looking for land have the opportunity to buy farmland
This small sample of agricultural producers believes that what Americans think about farmers and agriculture is important. The opinions of these farmers agree almost entirely with the findings of a research project on health literacy in rural populations that three professors from the Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health and I began three years ago.
The public image of agriculture is important!
Dr. Rosmann can be contacted at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has run behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, contact him at [email protected]