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SORT NOT, JUDGE NOT: It’s far too easy to slip into the knee-jerk mentality of sorting and categorizing people into specific boxes, but Shelby Watson-Hampton argues that farmers and other ag workers should push back against that limiting mindset and be more open to new voices with new ideas.

Confessions of an admitted ‘farm judger’

Why be judgmental? We need as many people as possible to spread ag’s positive message.

I was at one of the larger agricultural conferences in Maryland recently and I found myself in a discussion with several other people about some of the emerging ag industries in the state. 

All of us chatting were young farmers — under 40 years old — and either actively farming or in an industry-related job. All of us considered ourselves to be creative, open-minded people, so the conversation started out positive.

We talked about hemp, oysters, cheese creameries and a few other things.  

But then the discussion shifted, and we started talking about some of the newer members to our ag world: Beginning farmers (young or old), urban-turned-rural folks, second careerists who fled the city for another life, students fresh from college who wanted to farm and others. 

And the conversational flow seemed to group these individuals into roughly three categories.

3 boxes for new farmers

The first category are people who come from some sort of country background. Their parents aren’t farmers and they didn’t grow up on a farm, but they come from a rural area.

Ag sparked something in them from a young age. They did 4-H or FFA, interned in ag agencies throughout their teens, graduated from an ag college, and are ready to fully enter the working world as a farmer. These folks are our bright and shiny pennies. They are welcomed with open arms. They show the world that ag isn’t just an old fusty club of legacy farmers, that we have options for new folks and we have a thriving industry! They are proof that our outreach is working, and we are so proud to bring them into the fold. 

The second group is a bit more nebulous. They’re interesting and they cause us to cock our heads sideways as we listen to them, but we don’t trust them right off the bat. They’re new and they have new ideas, which makes us wary. However, something about them seems just legit enough that we stop to consider them.

Let’s say that among these is the successful businessman who has decided to turn his home property into more than a gentleman's farm. Even though he’s never farmed before, he built and ran his previous business from the ground up. He’s successful and he can be taught.

He’s not “one of us” yet, but he could be. The bank will give him the loan, if he even needs it, and he’s broken in a pair of boots and joined Farm Bureau.

Another one in the ranks of this group is the aspiring veteran farmer. Let’s say he’s 29 and recently retired from active duty. He’s never farmed before, but he’s served his country with distinction and has proven that he’s tough enough for the work, the weather and the hard conversations.

We shake his hand and thank him for his service, and then direct him toward those people who can get him started in the right direction.  

These are just two examples. There are other types of new farmers in this group, of course, but they all fit roughly the same mold: They’re new but familiar enough, and we feel safe enough to loop them into our world.

The third group is the one that causes the most facial expressions, only when we talk among ourselves that is (the raised eyebrow, the sideways glance, the rolled eyes, the blank stare).

Y’all know where I’m going with this. These are the people that we are just not quite sure what to do with. 

Think about the hippie chick who interned at an urban farm one summer and now wants to grow enough in her garden to support the family with an income, or the eager student who just graduated with a degree in humanities and wants to solve the fresh food inequality gap, or the suburban mom who suddenly wants to farm on her 3 acres because she “craves a simpler life.”

These folks take the word farmer and hitch it to other words like biodynamic, social justice and homesteading, and we nod blankly and smile politely as we slowly back away and shuffle together to close ranks.

These are clearly not “real farmers” like us, these are “the others.”

‘Why judge at all?’

The implications of this conversation with my peers all came to me in hindsight, of course.

Right after that conversation I went up to my room to finish an article I was writing for a local ag newspaper. I was writing about a new woman farmer who decided to raise heritage hogs.

She had moved from the city to the country with her husband and kids, she had 10 acres, she was raising some pigs and was, by basic USDA definitions, a “new farmer.”

I was completely prepared to write a puff piece on this new “farm.” However, the deeper I got into the interview, the more I became impressed. Like, really impressed.

She was an adept businesswoman. The operation was well-run and thriving; she couldn’t keep product on the shelves. After beginning as a cash-only startup with no loans, within 13 months the business was supporting itself and turning a profit with no debt. 

And then we got into her backstory. Turns out that her family ran a multigenerational cattle operation in both Indiana and Florida, and her father also had a Quarter Horse breeding operation in Idaho. She’d been a rodeo cowgirl, too, competing in eventing, cutting and training.

My surprised eyebrows went back down. Ahh, of course, that’s why she was successful. She was one of us, I just didn’t know it. She wasn’t one of “the others,” she was a real farm girl who’d just taken a break for city life before returning to agriculture.

The operation was still impressive, of course, it just wasn't as surprising now. 

The convention ended the next afternoon and we jumped into the truck to drive home. On the drive home I was telling my husband about the article, saying: “I never realized she came from a cattle farm and cowboy background, that all makes sense now. Her new business is really cool, all that diversification into the high-priced heritage breeds and all that.”  

And then just like that, in mid-conversation, the pieces from the previous days’ group conversation and my reaction to the article all came together. The lightbulb came on. And I realized, Houston, we have a problem. 

Because I had done it! The knee-jerk mental reaction, and sorting and assigning people to boxes. This is the thing in my everyday life that I try really hard not to do. I consider myself to be creative, flexible and open to new ideas. I make it a point to be open-minded, to not judge people by their culture, religion, skin tone, gender or sexuality. I am proud of all the diverse friends I have across the spectrum of life!

And yet, here I sit in my ag world having just “farm judged” someone. Yep, farm judged; I’m coining it here. We now have a phrase for the thing we all do. And don’t kid yourself, we do all do it.

Not only did I farm judge that woman, I did it to several people in the group conversation, too. I was easily assigning them to boxes that I thought they belonged to within the farming community. 

I was wrong. The lesson for me this time wasn’t, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The lesson was, “why judge at all?”

Expanding agriculture’s horizons

You guys, this is key. Why are we judging those who have even the tiniest inkling about wanting to be part of agriculture? Why do the ones from the far-out edges freak us out? 

To draw a mental metaphor here, we treat these folks on the edge of ag like homeless people who’ve wandered into a fancy church. We note that they are there with frozen smiles on our faces. We nod politely but don’t engage in conversation. We tolerate their presence but expect that they’ll sit in the back pews and just quietly observe. We donate to causes that help with some of their issues, but we don’t ask them to join the church board. 

See what I mean? 

If I needed any further proof that this was a lesson I needed to learn and should write about, it came in the Dec. 12 issue of the Delmarva Farmer newspaper. I read an article titled, “Today’s Outsiders are Tomorrow’s Neighbors,” written by Jackie Mundt, a Wisconsin native, Farm Bureau leader and farmer in Kansas. She is active in the Young Farmers & Ranchers Program, and won the National Discussion Meet competition in January at AFBF’s Annual Convention.

Now, Jackie Mundt sounds like one of us, doesn’t she? But she wasn’t always. She wrote about the unnecessarily difficult path she had to take to get to where she’s at today.

She opened the article by writing: “About a decade ago, I moved to a small town where I planned to spend the rest of my life. Excitement filled me, and I rushed to join the community and put down some roots. My excitement quickly deflated. Attending community events alone earned me a critical stare that seemed to question my motives and my character. My only human interaction came from the wonderfully sweet women who attended my church or worked at the Extension office because they were hardwired to be excellent welcoming hosts. For the first time in my life, I was an outsider. It was lonely and miserable.” 

Why is this so? We can do better than this. You know it, I know it, Jesus knows it. This woman knows it because she wrote an article about it.

So what if some of those others have some crazy ideas? So what if they don’t dress like me or drive a tractor like you, or know how to make the perfect casserole like Aunt Sally does for the 4-H potluck? We need all the positive-minded farm-like folks we can get to help us carry agriculture into the future! 

We have a strong foundation in agriculture in this country. Adding a few new friends to the farm community isn’t going to rock our foundations, it’s going to expand our horizons. 

I’m going to strive to remember this the next time I find myself inadvertently farm judging.

Farm judge not, lest ye be farm judged. Not a sermon, just a thought. 

Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.

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