Bo Stone is wrapping up two years of service as one of the “Faces of Farming & Ranching,” a program sponsored by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. Beginning in 2013, the Robeson, N.C. farmer left family and farm for part of each year for such locales as New York City, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Chicago and Orlando to tell the story of his farm to a mostly urban audience.
The mission: to educate consumers far removed from farming and ranching about where their food comes from. Stone, who farms 2,300 acres with his mother and father and wife Missy near Rowland, said it was a great honor to tell his story to mostly urban audiences who clearly wanted to know more about how the food they feed their families is produced.
Initially, Stone and the three other farmers who made up the inaugural class of the Faces of Farming & Ranching program were to serve in their spokesperson roles for one year, but Stone said the program was so successful that they asked the four to serve a second year, which all agreed to do. Their service will end in December, with a new group of farmers and ranchers taking over next year.
“The four of us who were chosen have a lot in common,” Stone said. “We are all very passionate about what we do. We all love talking about our farms and how we operate our farms and we’re willing to tell the stories of improvement and none of us are afraid to tackle the tough questions.”
The other Faces of Farming & Ranching participants joining Stone are Will Gilmer, a dairy farmer in Lamar County, Ala.; Chris Chin, who raises hogs, cattle, hay and row crops with her husband Kevin in Clarence. Mo.; and Katie Pratt, who raises corn and soybeans with her husband Andy in Dixon, Ill.
The four were selected from a pool of more than 100 farmer and rancher applicants across the country. A nationwide search was launched by USFRA in June 2012 as a way to identify farmers and ranchers who are proud of what they do and are eager to share their stories. The four were selected in January 2013.
Stone said the program has taught him that people are interested in where their food comes from and they have lots of questions. People were receptive to the message and appreciated the opportunity to dialogue
“The questions we get from consumers are the same,” Stone said. “They are concerned about animal welfare. They want to know that we are treating our animals humanely, which of course the vast majority of farmers and ranchers do because a happy animal is a healthy animal. We told consumers that it’s to our benefit to make sure we take care of our animals. We want them to thrive and do well.”
Stone said other hot topics were the use of antibiotics in animals, genetically modified organisms and organic versus conventional farming. “We had the opportunity to explain what these terms really mean. We educated people on how things are grown on the farm and why we farmers have chosen to take the routes we have,” Stone said.
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In addition to meeting with consumers, restaurant executives and other groups, Stone and the others did numerous media interviews with outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg.
“When you are able to have that dialogue and that two-way conversation with folks, they can ask questions and you have the opportunity answer those questions, you get a very positive reception,” Stone said. “That’s something I did not anticipate going into it was that people want know and they to know why and they want to be able to ask those questions. And it’s very important as farmers that we tell why.”
Stone said in these times of social media and 24-7 news, it is all the more important for farmers to tell their stories to consumers.
“As a general rule, for years farmers have been very private. They are more interested in staying on the farm and working and they don’t really want to talk to people and tell them what we’re doing on the farm,” Stone said. “We’ve got to get out of that mindset. We make up less and less of the population all the time, so if we’re not telling our story, somebody else is going to. It’s important to let folks know what we’re doing and most important why we do things in a certain way.”
Most consumers give little thought to where their food comes from and most have never met a farmer, but Stone said the biggest take away message from the past two years is that people want to learn.
“People are very interested in their food and how it comes from the farm to their families. The point that I have tried to make is that I’m not just feeding their family, I’m feeding mine as well,” Stone said. “We’re not going to do anything to jeopardize our children and yours either. Our families are eating the same food that yours are and we are not going to do anything to harm the environment or hurt the food chain. We’re trying to be very diligent and cautious in what we do and how we do it.”
Meanwhile, finalists for the second class of the Faces of Farming & Ranching have been announced by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. Those finalists are Erin Brenneman, Iowa; Jay Hill, New Mexico; Carrie Mess, Wisconsin; Thomas Titus, Illinois; Darrel Glasser, Texas; Brian Jones, Texas; Jessica Potter, Colorado; and Carla Wardin, Michigan.
Consumers will be able to help select the four winners by visiting USFRA’s Facebook Page and/or www.fooddialogues.com/Faces. Voting will run Oct. 24 through Nov. 2. These votes will be factored into the final decision to determine the next Faces of Farming and Ranching, according to USFRA.
Winners will be announced on Nov. 12 at a press conference during the National Association of Farm Broadcasting Convention (NAFB) in Kansas City.
Stone said he enjoyed his two years as a “Face of Farming and Ranching,” but he is ready to let other farmers and ranchers step up to the plate and tell their stories. He’s looking forward to the opportunity now to spend more time with his family and farm and get more involved in the local community,
“It’s been quite a ride; I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Stone said. “There are lots of farmers and ranchers out there who have great stories to tell, and the good news is that consumers are interested in having conversations with us. I am optimistic that the Faces of Farming & Ranching will be a successful program for years to come.”