A video of alleged employee abuse of animals at a big farm hits social media, and people start pouring the product tied to the corporate farm down the drain. California juries award hundreds of millions of dollars to plaintiffs seeking damages caused by Roundup, and people get nervous every time they see a sprayer. Who will help the public separate fact from fiction or half-truths? Who can prevent the hysteria?
When Jim Mintert asked recently named Master Farmers about the biggest challenges facing agriculture in the next decade, issues related to public perception and educating the public came up early and often. Everyone recognizes it’s no longer just a talking point for farm groups; education needs to happen soon before nonfarmers are telling farmers how they can and can’t farm.
“It’s definitely on the top of people’s minds today,” Mintert said. He is a Purdue University Extension agricultural economist and director of Purdue’s Center for Commercial Agriculture. He was also the moderator for a panel discussion of this year’s Master Farmer class during the Indiana Farm Management Tour.
Indiana’s 2019 Master Farmers are Richard Law, Atlanta; David Lee, Salem; Ronnie and Sarah Mohr, Greenfield; and Roger and Mary Beth Wenning, Greensburg. The Honorary Master farmer is Mark Sigler, chief operating officer and treasurer of Indiana Farm Bureau Inc. He and his family live on the family farm in Madison County.
Here’s how various panelists responded to a question about the biggest challenges facing agriculture in the next 10 years.
Ronnie Mohr: “The biggest challenge is educating people about what we do. We need them to come and see and talk to us. But the biggest challenge of all is getting them to understand it.
“I get asked often if we’re a corporate farm. Yes, we’re a corporate farm, and I tell them so. We have multiple corporations to operate the business. But I also tell them we’re a family farm. Everybody who works with us is family. Our task today is to try to build connections with nonfarm people.”
Lee: “I agree with Ronnie — educating the public is a big challenge. We also face another challenge — bringing along the next generation of farmers. Who will carry on with the farm? In our case, we have a trust which keeps the farm safe in that the land we own can’t be sold for business or building. Bringing in the next generation is a big job. And then there is always the question: Will they even want to farm? Our hope is that we can keep our farm going.”
Roger Wenning: “Educating the public and helping them understand our food is safe is the biggest challenge for me. It’s why I spend lots of time with soil and water conservation groups, and in hosting field days about soil and water conservation. If in the end the public doesn’t understand what we’re doing and why we do it, the day is coming when they will tell us how to farm. When we take care of our farms, they take care of us, and we need to let people know that.”
Law: “The average person in town has no idea what we’re doing and why we do it. I’ve had friends come out who have never been around the farm, and they are amazed at the big equipment we use and what it can do. We need to show people what we do and get the message out.”
Sigler: “External forces that could come to bear on farming are the biggest challenge I see looking ahead. It’s not just the public and laws that could be put in place by people who don’t understand agriculture. It’s also issues like trade and tariffs and changes in the weather. We’re seeing that this year. It makes us wonder what the future of agriculture will look like.
“I believe as entrepreneurs, farmers need to put some things in place now. Each farm needs a succession plan. Everyone involved needs to know how the farm can sustain itself going into the future. Maybe it involves a trust as David [Lee] said; maybe it’s a different tool.
“I strongly believe farmers also need to stay involved in organizations. As has been noted, it’s critical now to tell your story. We must communicate what we do and why we do it to people not in agriculture. We need to be aware of what’s going on in our communities and become engaged. Take the opportunities to do things you can do to educate others. Don’t just assume others will do that job for you. It’s too critical today to ignore.”