Remember the Generation Gap? This phrase has fallen out of common use but; during the decade of the 1960s, it was commonly used to refer to the disconnect between the younger and older generation — primarily between us young hip and cool teens and young adults and our square and out of touch parents. The phrase “don’t trust anyone over 30” was used a lot… until we all turned 30. There is different kind of generation gap that exists today between agricultural producers and consumers. Like the gap of the 1960s, this gap in understanding and expectations has fostered mistrust and animosity.
Agriculture is a highly technical, scientific, and capital intensive business today. It requires farm operators to be proficient in a wide variety of highly specialized areas from chemistry, to mechanical engineering, computer technology, biological sciences, botany, veterinary medicine, labor relations, contract law, environmental regulations, bookkeeping, corporate finance, and economic policy (just to name a few). Most farming operations are involved in producing and marketing a commodity, although a growing number are now producing branded products for a specific use or end user. The majority of farming operations are organized in some form of corporate structure involving several family members or other partners. Most operations have several different consultants on retainer, from crop consultants to financial advisors. A large percentage of farm families own only a small percentage of the land they farm, instead they lease or rent the fields on which they produce which is often spread over several counties.
This image of modern agriculture is not what consumers believe or what they want to believe. Most think family farms are small, independent, diversified, and producing food for their local area. They see the big mega farms which produce for large food conglomerates as corporate owned and operated farms. They have a mistrust of large farms and long for the simpler days of hardworking farmers struggling against nature to produce simple and safe food for their local community. This is one of the reasons they are willing to pay more for organic food products, mistakenly believing these are produced by smaller, independent family farms.
Setting aside the issues of production techniques, biotechnology, animal welfare, and the general lack of understanding of how and where their food is produced, the gap over the image and expectations of the food production system is at the heart of the disconnect between producers and consumers. Not only does this gap exist between producers and consumers but between producers and public officials. As a result, agriculture does not get the kind of public support it deserves or the kind of public policy it needs.
While some call for a return to the good old days, the reality is we cannot meet our current food needs, let alone future food demand, with 1940s technology. Consumers today demand a wide variety of sophisticated food products with convenience, low cost, and guaranteed safety. In the next 20 years, several billion new middle class consumers in Asia will be demanding a similar diet. American agriculture is up to the task of meeting that demand, but only if we have the public trust and public policies needed to grow the agriculture industry. The trust and policies will only come if we begin to close the image and expectation gap between agriculture and those who depend on it.
March is Agriculture Appreciation Month in Indiana. It is also the month in which we celebrate National Agriculture Day. As part of our conversation about agriculture, let us stress to consumers and public officials that our business has changed. Just as the corner store has become the supermarket, the family farm has become a family business, and let us stress that is it NOT a bad thing. This new structure will allow agriculture to supply our world today with safe, abundant, low cost and good tasting food and will do so in a sustainable way so that the next generation of farmers can produce even more food for a growing number of consumers.
by Gary Truitt