A few years ago, Dave Nanda challenged my use of the word “farmer” to describe people. Nanda is a retired plant breeder who continues to provide sage advice for the Corn Watch, Corn Illustrated and Breeder’s Journal columns.
Nanda’s point then was that farmers today, for the most part, are sophisticated businessmen and businesswomen, and the term “grower” is more professional. Public relations specialists and some communication directors at large ag companies refer to customers as “growers” rather than “farmers.”
When Nanda brought it up, I wrote an editorial column explaining why I thought many people still preferred being called a farmer. Primarily, I argued it was because farming is more than just a business. It’s a passion and a way of life.
I will acknowledge, however, that I began using the term “grower” more frequently, especially if the source operated a highly successful farming operation or the story was about a technical production topic.
The subject lay dormant until recently, when a public relations person for an ag business remembered the story and emailed me, asking what reaction we received. What did people who farm want to be called? The truth is, we didn’t get lots of reaction. Perhaps people are OK being referred to as either one — or at least, they were then.
The debate with Nanda was then; this is politically correct, politically charged 2020. Have your feelings changed? Is there a difference between a farmer and a grower? Which best describes you?
Earlier this summer, I stumbled into a situation where a state politician selected a local farm as the backdrop for a series of commercials. It’s a beautiful place, with older, white barns and a remodeled farmhouse. The couple who live there rent out the farm ground.
I didn’t give it much thought until a couple of days later when I drove by with an agronomist and mentioned watching for the farmstead in an upcoming political ad. The agronomist’s reaction surprised me.
“I wish people would stop picturing agriculture as it used to be,” the agronomist said. “Yes, it’s a picturesque farm. But it’s straight out of the 1940s. Why didn’t they choose a modern farm, with a state-of-the-art grain center and perhaps fertilizer storage dikes, with precision farming equipment in the barn lot?”
The agronomist has a point. How can agriculture convince the general public that it is made up of businesspeople who take their responsibility for producing safe food in an environmentally friendly way seriously if farming is still pictured as it was decades ago? Many urbanites likely still picture farming in a bucolic way, but it doesn’t help them understand how their food is produced, or what challenges today’s producers face.
The public relations person who asked how people responded to my column later commented that it seemed some people still were passionate about being called farmers. For many, it is still a way of life, and that’s a good thing.
But it’s also a business, where you compete in a competitive world with tight margins using sophisticated equipment. Which image will likely get the most support from people and politicians when important, politically charged issues arise?
I don’t have the answers. But it would appear it’s worth discussing “farmer” vs. “grower” again. Let us know your feelings. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 317-431-8766.