The average American is several generations removed from the farm. Therefore, most people who purchase and enjoy the food we produce have no idea what it takes to be a farmer. It’s human nature to distrust what you don’t understand, and farming practices are no exception. There is absolutely no better way to engage the general public in agriculture than to invite them to your farm and have a face-to-face conversation. However, food is a highly emotional topic, so most people who are visiting a farm will have questions that are difficult to answer.
For example, I have never given a farm tour where someone hasn’t asked why we separate calves from cows. To the general public, especially those with children of their own, this can be an extremely difficult concept to understand. So what’s the best way to talk about it?
A wise person once said, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
When answering difficult questions, this is the single most important idea to keep in mind. Farmers care immensely about the well-being of their animals, about conserving the environment for future generations, and about producing safe food for everyone to enjoy. When asked a difficult or emotion- based question, it’s often helpful to ask a few questions in return to better understand where the question is coming from.
And don’t forget to LISTEN to the answers!
A few weeks ago I was chatting with a stranger in an airport about farming, and he asked why we keep cows locked up inside the barns. Before answering, I asked him if he had ever visited a farm. He said that he worked on a few small dairies when he was in high school. I asked him if the farms he worked on were different than the farms he was talking about, and he said that they were because the cows on the farms where he worked were allowed to graze. Asking two questions helped me understand that this gentleman was primarily concerned that the cows don’t go outside.
This gave me an opportunity to explain what farmers do to keep their cows cool and comfortable inside the barn during the hot summer. After getting a better grasp of where the question is coming from, the best answers are based more on personal stories and less on facts. I could have told this gentleman that cows that are not provided with adequate heat abatement will decrease dry matter intake and milk production when the Temperature Humidity Index exceeds 68.
That would have gone in one ear and out the other.
A better answer would be to explain how excited I was when we installed new, energy ef fi cient fans in the barn that help keep the cows cool and comfortable. Another technique is to relate farming concepts to ideas that the general public can understand.
Cows have dietitians and a TMR is like a casserole or your grandmother’s stew - it provides all the nutrients you need in each bite. Calves live in hutches because if they were together they might spread germs, just like when your kids went to preschool for the fi rst time. The fi rst lactation heifer group is similar to the freshman dorms in college, and prevents the college seniors (i.e. mature cows) from hogging all of the resources. Sand- bedded stalls are like lying on the beach, and mattresses are ergonomically designed to be comfortable. Last but not least, there are people out there who will never see eye-to-eye with livestock farmers.
That’s OK! Let them know that you respect their opinion, and agree to disagree.
There will always be difficult questions, but remember that every question, no matter how difficult, is an open door. They may not remember what you said, but they will absolutely remember how you made them feel. Questions are opportunities to help people who are removed from agriculture understand what we do, and more than anything, how much we care.