The post-election backlash of liberal protesters against American farmers has been both vocal and outrageous. How has the urban population in America and Canada come to take farmers and their food supply so much for granted? In general we’ve become a society of disconnected people. We deal with each other indirectly and nowhere is this more obvious than in food and farming. Most consumers have no idea where their food actually comes from. They might know that farmers grow crops and livestock, and that someone packages these crops and delivers food to grocery stores and restaurants, but they have little sense of the hard work and complexity of the process.
Farming, in the minds of many, conjures up images from the past of a hard working family living in rural isolation and trying to coax a living from the land. To others, farming is just like any other manufacturing process that turns raw materials into finished products. But, there is no sense of connectedness between the people who shop in grocery stores or order off of restaurant menus and the farmers who till the soil to grow their food.
Until fairly recently, nearly everyone farmed, had farmed, knew a farmer, or at least knew someone who had farmed for a living, but this is no longer the case. People no longer understand how life in general, is connected to the soil and life on the land. They are concerned that farmers are destroying the natural productivity of the soil and destroying the environment and yet their main demand is cheap, abundant food in the grocery store.
Years ago, when we were a farm based society, people either grew their own food or bought it directly from someone who had grown it. The relationship between consumer and producer was personal – face to face. As the economy became more specialized, merchants such as butchers and bakers bought from producers and sold to customers, and the farmer/consumer connections became one-step removed. Then came grocery store owners, who bought from the butchers and bakers and consumers were at least two-steps removed from the farm. The principles of industrialization are specialization, standardization, and centralization of decision making. Regardless whether the result is assembly line production of cars or a large scale, modern farm, the principles are the same. As we have become specialized in our work, we have come to rely on the impersonal market place to get our commodities to consumers.
As people left rural areas for the cities, consumers became separated by distance and added functions such as transportation, further processing, storage, and packaging magnified the degrees of separation. Producers became increasingly reliant upon impersonal marketing systems. We began to rely on laws to facilitate buying and selling, on grades and standards to define quality, on health requirements to ensure safety, etc. – all vitally important, but counter to personal connections.
Today, models of working farms are more like tourist attractions, but tourist attractions don’t reconnect consumers with farming any more than zoos connect people with the jungle. We need to find a way to recreate those personal connections between farmers and consumers, daunting as that task sounds. How do the 2% of people who grow the food compete for the attention of the other 98% who are our customers? This is one more eye opening example of why we need to keep telling our stories and reaching out to consumers regardless of whether they appreciate us or not.