It was fall 2017, and I was standing near the stables on a beautiful plantation along the Ashleigh River in Charleston, South Carolina. My wife and I were attending the wedding of a friend of hers, and I found myself in the company of young men and women enjoying careers in the medical field. The atmosphere was abuzz with excited friends reuniting after years of geographical separation, and groups started forming around the courtyard area after the ceremony. As the new bride and groom were whisked away by the photographer to forever capture the essence of their big day in digital format, I looked around the crowd knowing the inevitable was about to happen: introductions.
Meeting someone for the first time in a group setting usually follows the same pattern: handshake, name, occupation, discuss. With this foresight I was able to predict the conversation that would ensue each time a different individual broke away from the mob to say hello. After names, we arrived at occupation, and when I revealed that I’m a farmer, the response, invariably, was the same: “OH!”
Rather than a dull “Oh”, these outbursts carry an inflection that barely masks the person’s horror at the thought of such a vocation. It sounds more like “Ow!” pronounced with a slight “a” sound: “Aow!”
Being well groomed members of society, many folks stammered through a few more questions to cover their initial shock: “Aow! Yeah, man, that’s great. It’s hard work, huh? So, you have, like, a tractor?”
We need to get out in the open right now that I do not have such an elevated opinion of myself to take offense to these inevitable interactions. Rather, the reason I’m reflecting on the matter is because these folks’ reactions speak volumes about the public perception of farmers.
During the fledgling years of our country’s growth, farmers were considered the darlings of society. To carry the weight of such a noble occupation, these people needed to be extremely intelligent, well read, well travelled, and well educated. Indeed, many farmers were so highly regarded by their peers they were elected as public officials to help navigate difficult political crises, and farmers even played key roles during the Revolutionary War.
Today society reflexively expects farmers to be stupid. Where did we go wrong? In her book The Smear, Sharyl Attkisson propounds the reality that any idea, notion, or concept, if pushed hard enough for long enough, will become fact. We are at least several generations steeped in the dumb farmer paradigm, and what horrifies me is the saturation of the idea across the full spectrum of the population. Indeed, even farmers have begun to believe we’re not supposed fit in with the rest of the world.
Before you go apoplectic on me, fellow farmers, I ask you to be brutally honest with yourself: do we not all thumb our nose a little at white collar society? Have we never been just a smidge proud to wear boots into a room full of boat shoes? Don’t we delight just a tad in grease on blue jeans and stink stuck to our shirt and a roughneck demeanor when we’re confronted with sissy city life?
Aren’t we just giving people what they expect?
The best and brightest of any society are drawn to high profile vocations known to be challenging, lucrative, and important. According to an overwhelming majority of people, farming will never fall within these parameters, despite the fact that any nation lacking the ability to feed its population will very rapidly be destroyed. Just look at how many schools are axing their agriculture programs. Brilliant kids who watch adults tossing a vocation out the window as worthless will avoid the occupation like the plague. Our current farm landscape that is devoid of youth speaks volumes about the mindset.
Arduous trajectories like this can be altered, and the power lies solely on the shoulders of farmers. Our children must learn to exceed the expectations of everyone around them, and lessons from farmers of a bygone era are a source from which to draw inspiration. We absolutely have to shed the ‘aw shucks’ demeanor and replace it with a sharp, well rounded persona. A rumpled and dirty appearance should be an exception and not the norm. Books and trade magazines on every subject should be collected, studied, and coveted in the same manner as John Deere memorabilia. When we speak, our objective should be to exemplify a white collar professional who is tuned in to modern societal preferences and tasked with the extraordinary vocation of food production rather than inexorably leading the conversation to cow punchin’, corn plantin’, and manure haulin’.
Americans desperately want to believe in the noble farmer, but years of disconnect and industry consolidation have consumers trained to be wary. Our food climate today has primed the pump for young people to change the farm stereotype forever. People who eat are eager to know the people who grow their sustenance, and niche marketing specialized farm products directly to consumers creates a pathway that provides a direct link to change opinions. When society meets us, they should be shocked by how articulate we are, not by our brash nature. It will be difficult to so rapidly change the mores of agricultural society, but never before has the future so depended on a group of people. Let’s lead by example.