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Farmers look to bridge disconnect
April 25, 2013

Lauren Servick grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Le Roy, Minn., that her uncles and great-grandfather still run today.

Not many of Servick’s cousins or siblings are going back to the farm, but the University of Minnesota agricultural education sophomore said they all share their stories to fill the disconnect that many farmers say exists between them and consumers.

The average person is three generations removed from a farm, and only 2 percent of Americans still live on farms.

“It’s really almost our responsibility to make sure there is consumer confidence in the products we produce,” Servick said, “and it’s our job to make sure that people are confident in the food that they’re eating.”

More than two-thirds of farmers think consumers have “very little knowledge” about modern farming, according to a survey by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

Mark Koepp and his son Bruce, hog farmers from Belle Plaine, Minn., said they’re frustrated with how the public perceives what they do.

“We’re all on the same team,” Bruce Koepp said, “but nobody understands that.”

Not the ‘big bad guy’

The Koepp’s farm houses 30,000 hogs each year, but it’s not a factory.

In the U.S., families own 98 percent of farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thinking of a farm run by a factory evokes images of animals that aren’t cared for, Mark Koepp said, which is the opposite of what’s true.

Keeping livestock happy and healthy is “fundamental” to what farmers do, said Lakefield, Minn., farmer Dan O’Connor.

“I’m saddened by the fact that so many people think we don’t care,” he said. “Animals that aren’t cared for well perform miserably and you fail financially.”

While the financial reasons for keeping livestock healthy is an underlying reason, Mark Koepp said it’s not the main motivation.

“You do it because you love the animals,” Bruce Koepp added. “If I hated pigs, do you think I’d go out there every day?”

Farming has become more efficient and more technologically advanced than ever before. GPS-enabled tractors and automated equipment are the norm.

Investing in new technology requires that farms get bigger, the Koepps said, and in turn, the efficiency created by better equipment propels growth.

Genetically modified organisms deepen the divide between farmers and consumers. GMOs are crops that have been scientifically altered to enhance the plant’s quality and resistance to elements and pesticides.

In a national survey, 64 percent of people said they were “unsure” if eating GMOs was safe.

O’Connor said it’s “sickening” to see the misinformation on GMOs.

“If I thought there was anything dangerous to genetically modified corn or alfalfa, I would never let my 4-year-old daughter or my 6-year-old son eat them,” he said.

Changing misconceptions

Cassie Olson said she isn’t going to go back to run her family farm.

Instead, the agricultural education sophomore wants to go into public relations or communications to try and boost consumers’ confidence in farming.

Olson said farmers and consumers often have an “us vs. them” mentality, which the media intensifies by focusing on negative instances that can color the entire industry.

Steve Lammers, agricultural education junior, said he’s noticed more consumers are asking questions about where their food comes from and about farming in general.

Just asking questions is the best way for the public to learn more about farming, Servick said.

“It’s pretty easy that once you hear one negative thing, that’s what you think is right,” Servick said. “It’s hard to bridge that gap back to what it actually is.”

Lammers said he thinks public perceptions of farming will change over time because farmers are starting to recognize and address people’s concerns.

“The young people coming into agriculture realize that this is our livelihood,” he said. “If we want to succeed and do what is right, we have to make sure people understand what goes into it.”

Source: Minnesota Daily



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