But What If Your Farmer Doesn't Want To Know YOU?

The First Lady has planted a garden, organic, of course, and the Department of Agriculture is spending 50 million or so on a program called Know Your Farmer. The effort is likely to disappoint: in fact, a suburban housewife determined to know this corn farmer is likely to be mortified by my looks, the way I smell, and my opinions. I can't imagine why any resident of Manhattan would want to know me, and, trust me, some of my neighbors are even worse.

...One of the assumptions implicit in all this local food stuff is that we farmers are dying to make a connection with our customers. In many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. All we want is to sell corn and to be left alone.
--Blake Hurst, farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau

I borrowed this striking quote from The Locavore's Dilemma, partly because it had me laughing out loud, but also because it illustrates an intriguing point about the food and ag business.

Take a Brooklyn hipster (no, really, take one!). Imagine her, freshly done reading one of Michael Pollan's books, and deciding, firmly, that she wants to get "close" to her food. She’s gonna know her farmer, man. Now she'll make regular trips to the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, take a weekly subway ride to Manhattan's Union Square Farmer's Market, and maybe even once a month line up a Zipcar Prius to drive up the Hudson Valley (staying within 100 miles of course) to visit an actual organic farm!

Hipsters are usually quite good at irony. But there's one question, ironically, that this hypothetical Brooklyn hipster never thought to ask: what if her farmer doesn't want to know her back?

You'd think this imaginary friendly farmer, if he really wanted to know this hipster and others like her, would take a job where he'd actually get to meet hipsters. He wouldn't farm at all! He'd work at the Apple Store. Or at Whole Foods.

If you take Blake Hurst's word for it, most farmers just want to farm. They didn't sign up to meet hipsters and agri-intellectuals. That's the reason other people sell, distribute and retail their food: because selling, shipping, distributing, retailing and hipster-meeting isn't farming.

Think about this a little bit. Does your farmer want to know you?

Are you sure?

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Anonymous said...

Having farmers in the family and having worked around well educated people who are frankly clueless about food production, I would guess that most conversations between the two groups would not end well.

chacha1 said...

There is a time and a place to "meet your farmer." That would be the farmer's market. Otherwise, leave them alone. :-)

It's kind of like the wine business. There are tasting rooms, and that is where the public face of the business is on display. And then there is the actual winemaking operation, which (in most cases, at most times) is not open to the public.

If a food production operation does not have a "farm store" or posted public area, I would never assume that dropping in to visit would be allowed, much less welcome.

Dave said...

I'm not sure if they want to know me or not, but being in-laws, they have little choice in the matter ;).

I've had some good conversations with my cattle-farming brother-in-law and it's funny that we can look at the same herd of cows and have very different concerns.

For him it's about economic. For me it's about taste and quality.

He wants them happy and comfortable because that means they hit weight quicker, don't need to see the vet, and have more calves. I want them happy because I think happy cows taste better.

Anonymous said...

Its an interesting dilemma. I don't know how it is in the states (the farming system is vastly different to here in Ireland) but I think a lot of farmers would benefit from meeting their customers as in many cases it is a means of adding value. When you have millions of farmers worldwide trying to mass produce the same identical product, you need to find a way to stand out and most farmers do not understand this business principle.


mm1970 said...

Yes, I'm pretty sure my farmer wants to know me. We've been members of a local CSA since 2001. They have members potlucks, days for members to come and work on the farm, classes on gardening, canning, and beekeeping.

Pretty much it's a big outreach from the farm to us.

Now, at the farmer's market - I'd be willing to bet that there are some farmers there who don't want to get to know you. The ones who do? Well, I frequent their stalls more.

It's probably related to sheer size though. If you make money by selling local at farmer's markets or to a CSA, then yes, you want to know your customers. If you don't, then it might not matter.

Owlhaven said...

That quote had me laughing too. I know several farmers who would agree with the 'buy my corn, leave me be' sentiment. :)