I have barely a shred of mechanical know-how. My childhood consisted of a great deal of four wheelers and dirt bikes on which my friends and I terrorized the countryside, but when breakdowns occurred the repair work was always entrusted to someone who had the gift of vehicular prowess.
This avoidance of stalled engines and broken parts has carried through into my adult years, and today a source of tremendous frustration for me is a machine that is not functioning properly. Unlike many of my peers, who, like bloodhounds on a fresh trail, can follow, isolate, remove, and repair the slightest rattle, my approach is a little more laissez-faire: when it catches fire, breaks in half, or spews oil over the driveway, I know it’s time to enact a course of corrective action. Shake your heads, I know.
Trips to the repair shop are horrible because my ignorance of the machine is forced to become a public matter. As a young man I’m faced with a sort of societal expectation to simply know everything about the part or vehicle in question, as though I should possibly kick the shop doors open, rush to the head mechanic, rattle off everything that needs accomplished, and then don a blue coverall and dive in on the action, assisting at every step of the process. Instead, I have learned just enough vocabulary to feign competence as the experts diagnose the issue. When they inevitably realize I have no idea what they’re talking about, I always begin to wonder if they’re seeing additional dollar signs creeping into their mind: we can tell this guy anything we want!
The reason I cringe at the thought of mechanical repair is because I lack an understanding of the process. Rarely as a youth did I spend an evening in any garage cranking under a hood or working on a tractor, so that basic intuition embedded in a gearhead’s brain eludes me. I can’t see the whole picture in my mind before I get started, so my progress is like trying to find a specific address without a map. Frustration and confusion are soon to follow. What I need is a mechanical mentor, a human counter-balance to my knowledge void, who understands me and understands machines. I need an equipment translator.
I believe this is precisely the situation so many consumers who are seeking food knowledge encounter every day.
An unavoidable truth – and a very positive one, I might add – is that a huge number of families today are concerned about what they eat. This is a well known fact. What isn’t as obvious is these conscientious people and their expanding relationship with food are a little bit like me and my relationship with machines: in their pursuit of answers, they’re forced to encounter something they do not intuitively understand.
People want to know what they’re eating, and how it was grown, and where it was grown, and by whom, but they simply do not have the discerning knowledge that comes from growing up growing food. Put yourself in their shoes: you’re seeking to make good decisions about a truly fundamental requirement for life with barely a shred of information to help you ask the right questions. Adding to the frustration is the ongoing war between huge agri-business, which is spending truckloads of money trying to convince everyone to simply avoid too much critical thought about food production, and the local food movement, encompassing a multitude of different factions, one of which seems to believe your family ought to live in a clay hut and forage exclusively for sustenance.
Ignorance becomes public when customers seek information, and curious consumers are either berated for asking the question or for not knowing the answer. People become frustrated by the wall of opposing information and succumb to buying easy-to-understand pseudo-organic from the mega-packers, or they become frustrated and gravitate towards the extreme edge of the eating world, turning vegan, drinking shrub, and protesting in front of dairy farms. When knowledge and experience are lacking, extremes are a natural place to land because they are easily recognizable; e.g. I might not recognize when an engine sounds bad, but I can recognize when it explodes.
Consumers today do not need more information about food. Take a look through the internet: we live in information overload city. Just as more fragments of information about vehicles will not make me a better mechanic, bombarding people with fragments of information about food will not make them better eaters. What consumers need is someone who understands them and understands food production. They need a food translator with wisdom to help navigate the sea of statistics.
Farmers, YOU possess the wisdom consumers are desperately seeking. Tragically, too many of us pass public relations onto agribusiness and farmer organizations. Friends, some bureaucratic bunch of hired suits will gloss over your true identity. Wisdom can’t be voted into position or policy. It is contained only and uniquely in you. I implore you, embrace your wisdom, forget about professional advice, and be you X 1000. Once you discover your groove in life, learn how to communicate. If consumers want to learn about food, farmers must learn to become food translators for the masses. The sooner we do so, the better.