Tractor in a field on a rural Maryland farm

A key step in growing up is realizing that you don’t know everything — and that you never will.

Your unanswered questions may last for a fleeting second (What’s the name of that song?) or persist for a lifetime (Why does my spouse do that?).

As you get older, you realize that there are simply more questions than you have time to answer.

These days, many people have questions about farming, and farmers have questions about how to answer these questions.

Indeed, one of the tiredest observations in agriculture today is that most Americans are several generations removed from the farm. It’s offered as an explanation for why farmers feel misunderstood.

In the recitation of this fact, I sometimes detect a note of exasperation: If only people were still in touch with the farm, they would understand what I do.

After all, agriculture is the only occupation in which everyone’s family has centuries of experience. Why did all these people have to move to town and cause their descendants to be mystified by what farmers do in 2021?

No one would dispute that agriculture is fundamental to human existence. But we live in a highly diversified economy, and no one is required to understand how a particular industry works.

Certainly, there’s no reason to be indignant when people don’t know the ins and outs of a highly technological field that has changed rapidly in the last few decades.

The French have described an error in thinking that is relevant here.

Déformation professionnelle (a term you will no doubt slip into conversation the next time you visit the feed store) is the tendency to look at situations based on your professional background rather than how a regular person would see them.

To farmers, it’s a reminder that practices that seem normal and justifiable to you may look outrageous to people who come from other backgrounds.

Beak trimming and dehorning can seem inhumane, so farmers may need to explain to outsiders that these practices are actually intended to improve well-being by limiting the harm that animals can do to each other.

To be fair-minded, outside observers should consider whether farmers have a reason for beak trimming and dehorning before rushing to assume that these practices are malicious. After all, industries rarely implement extra production steps without cause.

But even if they’ve given farmers a fair hearing, city folks aren’t obligated to agree with the rationale for these practices. Consumers can draw their lines on animal welfare wherever they want, and make their eating and public policy decisions accordingly.

Changing Trends, Changing Tastes

Farmers need to earn the public’s trust, not once but continually. People’s tastes are always changing, and new shoppers are beginning to form their opinions of foods every day.

To that end, farmers must be careful about acting as though what is good for them is what’s good for everyone else.

Livestock farmers clearly feel threatened by plant-based dairy and meat alternatives, to the extent that farmers regard the new products as profanations of the original.

But shoppers are under no obligation to support the interests of legacy industries like beef or dairy. To compete, farmers need to understand and respect why consumers buy these new products.

Livestock groups have already started their counterstrike, criticizing the perceptions of healthfulness and environmental friendliness associated with plant-based foods.

But consumers may also buy these items because they prefer the taste, like to try new things, enjoy being on trend, or see the premium products as status symbols.

Animal ag is working on ways to address those perceptions. The most potent, if most challenging, might be to destroy plant-based products’ standing as aspirational buys.

Cigarettes and margarine have fallen pretty hard in recent decades, and they fell because they came to be seen as both bad for you and symbols of the lower class. Respectable people don’t smoke, and they cook with butter.

It’s hard to imagine how today’s high-priced products could be cast as the food of poor people, but there’s probably some sinister marketing genius out there who can make it work.

A more likely scenario is that milk and meat will continue to dominate their markets while plant-based alternatives settle in as modest-sized competitors.

In the end, farmers must have the humility to recognize that the food scene is bound to evolve. This ebb and flow will both open and foreclose opportunities for farmers.

Few farmers lament the collapse of America’s horse meat production or South Korea’s dog meat industry, but some have benefited from the recent growth in ultrafiltered milk and locally sourced craft beverages.

Part of the humility of not knowing is not knowing what the future holds.

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