It may come as a surprise that less than two percent of the U.S. population is involved in the growth of something we all need every day – food! In 1900, more than 40 percent of the working population was involved in agriculture. As more of the population has become removed from involvement in agriculture, a gap in mutual understanding has grown between those who produce food and the consumers who eat it. To help bridge this gap, farmers, ranchers and others in the industry are using a variety of initiatives and methods to share their stories.
“I think that’s really important because if you don’t know, you don’t know,” Kyla Hamilton, a farmer from Shallowater, Texas, said. “And who better to know where food comes from than the people who actually produce the food. We’ve got to be better and diligent about staying in the conversation and being open and transparent about what we’re doing.”
One of the ways Hamilton initially began connecting with consumers is through CommonGround, an organization of female farmers who intentionally engage in conversations about agriculture. Through CommonGround, she said she provides consumers with a unique perspective both as a farmer and a mom, since the food she grows is also the food her family eats.
Understanding this need to promote conversation, Hamilton and her family have embraced a number of opportunities over the years to share their farm’s story. In addition to participating in local farmers markets, she said they have hosted pick-days in the summer where people visit their farm to pick their own vegetables.
Hamilton said they are also opening their farm for agritourism events. Beginning this summer, consumers can visit the Hamilton farm for sunflower days where they can pick flowers and take part in a number of attractions. The Hamilton family will also host Christmas on the farm where visitors can buy live Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands.
Hamilton said that when consumers can talk directly to farmers or visit the farms where food is grown, conversations about how it’s grown just seem to happen naturally.
“It doesn’t have to be the big dramatic push,” Hamilton said, “but just a simple conversation with the server at a restaurant or a social media post or something that maybe just puts a little tidbit of information out there that people didn’t know before.”
Recognizing the value of social media in reaching consumers, Julia Williams, a farmer from Dalhart, Texas, said she partners with a fellow farmer to jointly run the blog and Instagram account, The Farmers Hobby. Through this effort, they showcase the faces of farming and share nutritious and delicious meal ideas.
“Farmers are often in rural areas, and so we don’t have natural access to many of the people we’re feeding,” Williams said. “Social media has given us a platform and a voice to reach people and just share about what’s happening, and what it looks like on a farm.”
Outside of her social media efforts, Williams and her family host a farmers’ market where they sell their produce at their coffee shop in town. However, over the last year, she said COVID changed things in regard to how they market their farm goods. They met the challenge by adapting and putting produce baskets together throughout the growing season and used social media to spread the word to consumers.
While Williams did not grow up in the agriculture industry, she said once her family started gardening, she began to better understand all of the processes, decisions, and challenges that large-scale family farming presents by getting her hands dirty.
“I would advise people to get close to their food, get their hands dirty, and be open to learning about the process,” Williams said.
Sharing the story behind agriculture requires the collective effort of everyone involved in the industry, and Katie Lewis, associate professor with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Texas Tech University, is using her unique position as both a farmer and agricultural scientist to do just that.
“Being a farmer’s wife and growing up a farmer’s daughter, I think it’s really important that we communicate to the public that farmers are the greatest stewards of the land,” Lewis said.
In her research, Lewis works extensively in the area of conservation management. With the primary goal of helping farmers improve environmental and economic sustainability, her research takes a closer look at cropping systems and how they influence water use efficiency and soil health.
Knowing the technical aspect of research, Lewis said she strives to demonstrate the results and share the story of sustainability with the public. Not only does Lewis advocate on social media, she also shares information via traditional media outlets. Lewis also partners with Water Grows in the Future Directions Study where she takes part in a video series to help share the conservation efforts of farmers.
As a consumer, it can often be overwhelming to filter through the information that is available about agriculture. Julia Williams said it is important to have a balanced view and seek out reliable sources, and when possible, go to the farmer directly.
“If you’re able to connect directly with a farmer and see what’s actually happening day-to-day and what goes into the decisions, I think it allows you to have better compassion for the farmer, and also a greater respect for your food,” Williams said.
When consumers have direct connections with farmers and their food, Kyla Hamilton agrees there is a different level not only of appreciation, but trust in the food system. In fact, many farmers encourage consumers to ask questions.
“If something’s on your mind as a consumer, go ahead and ask,” Hamilton said. “I think most farmers are more than willing to talk about it. No topic is off limits.”