Without a hands-on knowledge of what it truly means to till the land, sow the seed and harvest the fruits of labor, it may simply be impossible to understand what it means to be a farmer. So many of our children, when asked where their food comes from, will answer plainly, “The grocery store.”
By Allison Bloom
Editor, Food, Nutrition & Science
Recently, when I was driving my daughter to dance practice, we stopped at a red light and an older man driving a white pick up truck pulled up beside us. My daughter turned to look at the man and laughed out loud, saying, “Hey, Mom. Look at that silly old farmer in the truck!” Our windows were down, and so were his. I’m sure he heard her. Needless to say, at that moment I wanted to be an ostrich and stick my head in the sand.
Yes, the man was driving a pick up truck, and yes, he was old. But no, he was not a farmer (his truck was emblazoned with a landscaping logo). Yet my daughter assumed that the combination of old plus truck equaled – you guessed it – farmer. Embarrassed as I was, my daughter had brought up an important issue without even realizing it. After all these years of farmer outreach and garden-to-table initiatives, we still don’t truly know our farmers.
It’s true, farmers are aging. The average age of principal farm operators in 2007 was 57, compared with an average of 50 years in 1978. Farmers over 55 own more than half of the country’s farmland, and approximately a third of beginning farmers are also 55 and older. Many farmers call the farm their home, which makes late retirement possible. And farms with an older principal are often multi-generational, with younger operators present as well.
However, young farmers are starting to make their mark as well. In 2002, there were 106,097 farmers in the 25 to 34-age range; in 2007 that figure rose to 106,735. One successful direct outreach program, the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers Ranchers Committee, is working to put a familiar face on the younger farmer. The program includes both men and women between the ages of 18 and 35 with the objective of preserving and expanding farmer opportunities in agriculture. This younger and more diverse farmer presence is helping to debunk long held myths about farmers.
Another more locally based program, the Greenmarket's “Meet Your Farmer” program, connects regional farmers with New York City students. In addition to organizing trips to the Greenmarket Farmers Markets, the program also brings farmers directly into the classroom. At these in-class visits, farmers talk about what their typical day on the farm is like, and about the products they grow or raise. Other similar programs, like the L.A.-based “Bring the Farmer to Your School” program from SEE LA or the state-funded “Meet-The-Farmer” program in Somerville, Massachusetts, are striving hard to give students a tangible farm to table experience without needing to leave the classroom.
The only step missing from all of these get-to-know-your-farmer initiatives – actually visiting and working at the farm – may be the most crucial. Without a hands-on knowledge of what it truly means to till the land, sow the seed and harvest the fruits of labor, it may simply be impossible to understand what it means to be a farmer. So many of our children, when asked where their food comes from, will answer plainly, “The grocery store.”
Farmers Markets have been key in bringing the farm to the city, helping kids gain a better understanding of where their food comes from, and in helping consumers in more urban areas to gain access to fresh, local fare. Farmers of all ages have helped contribute to the incredible growth of Farmers Markets over the last decade. In 1994 there were 1,755 markets in the U.S. Today there are 7,864. This more regular presence of the “farm” in a consumer’s life, if only at the once a week pop-up market, has been essential in eliminating many stereotypes consumers have about farmers.
There are other ways to really get to know your farmer. WWOOF, for example, is an international program that was started in the United Kingdom in 1971 with the goal of providing people living in London with an opportunity to participate in the organic farming movement. The program has since expanded to include more than 50 countries around the world, with a wide range of farm-stay opportunities. Visitors, or “WWOOFers” as they are lovingly called, spend time on a host farm, learning about farming and actually working the land, in exchange for room and board. No money is exchanged between visitors and hosts, and the cultural and educational experience is priceless. Talk about a unique family vacation.
Recently, I drove to Underwood Farms, a lovely family farm about an hour from where we live in Los Angeles. My daughter rode the tractor, picked strawberries, squash, lettuces, snap peas, avocados, broccoli and more. We got our hands dirty, and we stained our jeans. We stuffed ourselves silly with delicious, fresh fruits and vegetables, and we talked to the farmers, face-to-face. Now, my daughter is interested in planting our own vegetable garden at home. She’s even shown an interest in eating more fruits and vegetables.
The message is clear, and I have my daughter to thank for opening my eyes to it. We can only shoot down stereotypes through education. And we owe it to our children to get out there and meet our farmers.