Helping people gain a better understanding about their food choices and how food is produced seems to be a significant part of what I do. At events, market and conferences I take a view that an informed customer is a good customer. I take the time and gladly answer questions. There are so many conflicting bytes of information bombarding people the farmer would seem a key source of information on how food is produced, how this impacts the farm ecosystem, and consumers’ health and wellbeing.
Like most direct marketers of food, I have to be able to engage and discuss how my food is produced and how that benefits consumers. Of course this is easiest to do if I am transparent about what I do. No fabrications or misrepresentations (That’s right, completely unlike a politician). No false claims and the willingness to challenge misconceptions even if they threaten a persons ideals. The people I have to work the most on are other farmers and gardeners that have a limited scope focused on hot weather crops.
Other farmers are often specialists, it could be tree fruit or poultry. They take their specialty understanding and often overlay it onto market vegetable/CSA production and make comments or ask questions. A frequent comment is monocroppers (corn/soy) who wonder what we do about bugs? I used to ask, “The good ones or the bad ones?” Which typically prompted the response, “They’re all bad!” But this season I’ll probably shift to a slightly different version by responding, “We love bugs and the important things they do for our farm ecosystem! What should I do with them?” The other common question deals with how many acres I work. If I was a western cattle rancher I’d need tens of thousands. If I was a monocropper producing government subsidized grain then I’d need several thousand acres to make a living and service my debt. But as a CSA farmer I need only a few acres. So I take the time to let farmers know that I can generate over $20M of market value crops per acre and I don’t have to work a huge number of acres to make my way.
Gardeners develop their skills by watching shows, from others or from childhood experiences. So they end up with a lot of creative ways of doing things. For some reason the most common question from gardeners is, “When do you start your garden?” Like a certain date on the calendar holds a key to success with cabbage, tomatoes and cukes. I really like this type of question though, because it allows me to push open a door to understanding; that gardening never has a starting day, rather it is a continuous process. When I can get gardeners to grasp that perennial, cold weather and hot weather crops will all fit into their plans, they realize that they don’t need a whole weekend to “Put in the Garden.” The other thing I like to emphasize with gardeners is that mulching is such a key part in promoting a healthy garden. So many gardeners strive for the bare dirt, weed free ideal that they quickly get discouraged when nature tries to heal their wounding of the land. Mulching with compost, leaves or other yards wastes really helps.
I’d like more questions from food consumers though. The emphasis in agriculture has been on finding ways to increase yield. This typically fails when we look at nutrition and eating satisfaction. The lower yielding varieties can have much greater nutrient values. Many heirlooms are valued because of their flavor and the unique eating qualities. I grow a variety of carrots. Some for flavor, some that store well and others for fresh eating. None because they yield the highest. A final important point. The farmer with the first crop of an item gets a premium at market. The efforts to grow for early sales often requires extraordinary measures. This effort is often contrary to what nature would support. I’ve had a feeling that producing at peak times is also where we’ll find peak nutrition. Those early strawberries may look nice but when the main crop is in, is when the best value can be found!