Opening the Barn Doors

1/5/2013 8:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

Stallman to Farmers: You Need to Bridge the Ag Gap
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The doors to the Today’s Agriculture exhibit were tossed open Wednesday, and agricultural and environmental leaders got a look at the 2013 edition before this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show opened to the public.
The innovative exhibit showcases current livestock and agronomic practices found on many farms in Pennsylvania.
On hand for the opening was Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, who said the average person living in the city or suburbs is at least five to six generations removed from the farm.
Long gone are the days when many people spent their summers or holidays on a grandparent’s, uncle’s or cousin’s farm, said Stallman, who operates a rice and cattle operation in Columbus, Texas.
“Short of bringing a consumer to the farm, this is the best you can do to explain what we do with modern production agriculture,” he said.
“Our farm family-based production system we have in this country is the best way to provide for the needs not only for this country, but for a significant part of the rest of the world’s population,” he said.
However, Stallman said there is an ongoing conversation in this country about food that is showing a growing disconnect from the farm, making it imperative that farmers become more effective in connecting with consumers and gaining their trust.
“We know in agriculture we take care of the land, the water, and take care of the environment and produce safe food in the process,” he said. “We thought because we were the ‘good guys’ we really did not have to explain ourselves a whole lot. … In the interim, we have lost touch with consumers.”
Stallman said the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has done research about what the public knows about farming, plus how people gather their information.
The first lesson is that consumers don’t want to just hear facts about agriculture, he said. The second lesson is that farmers need to figure out who their audiences are and how to reach them.
He said the key group includes the “influencers,” such as food editors, celebrated chefs and “mommy bloggers,” who are vocal about food questions.
“This is a new world with social media,” he said. “The social media thing has ramped up this food conversation.”
A key to the conversation is storytelling — getting farmers to tell about life on their farms and what they do, Stallman said, and getting farmers to interact on the social media platforms.
Farmers “have to listen a lot more than we talk to consumers,” he said.
The conversation has to be honest, explaining why farmers do what they do and staying away from scientific terms. He said consumers want to know their concerns are heard and get a response.
“Each of us have that opportunity to bridge that gap and reach that consumer or that consumer influencer,” Stallman said. “And if we are willing to step up and do that … we will help close that knowledge gap.”
State Agriculture Secretary George Greig said the Today’s Agriculture exhibit will give people a chance “to see, hear and touch” agriculture.
“Over the next 10 days, over 400,000 people will visit the Pennsylvania Farm Show,” he said. “Today’s Agriculture reflects the diversity and complexity of this industry.”
In addition to the barn complete with livestock, the display is surrounded by fields depicting modern precision farming and conservation practices. This year’s exhibit is putting more emphasis on modern farming’s sensitivity to the environment.
Michael Krancer, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said he’s come to appreciate agriculture since his appointment to the job two years ago.
“Ag has been a huge leader in restoring the Chesapeake Bay with no-till farming, cover crops and buffers,” Krancer said.
And it’s paid off.
The “ag sector has reduced the most nitrogen and phosphorus contribution of any sector to the bay,” he said.
A big challenge facing his department, Krancer said, is documenting the large percentage of agricultural best management practices that have been left out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay watershed model because they had not been reported.
Jon Capacasa, director of EPA’s Region 3 water protection division, spoke about the partnership of farmers and the environmental community to help clean up the waterways in the state.
“We know farmers are true stewards of the land and help improve the Chesapeake Bay and waters and streams,” he said.
Capacasa talked about the Watson Run partnership in which farmers, the EPA and the local conservation district are working to clean up one Lancaster County watershed.
“The primary thing we need is continued dialog” in how to keep a balance between farm viability and environmental stewardship, he said.

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