Farmers have to plant seeds of trust

DeWayne Bartels
People who do not have an agricultural background have issues of trust with those who grow our food. That lack of trust is present in Woodford County one local ag expert said.

Farmers have a trust issue to address with the public.

That is the assessment of Jolene Neuhauser, manager of the Woodford County office of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“Trust is earned. It’s not just a given thing,” Neuhauser said.  

An issue here

Neuhauser spoke about this trust issue in light of new consumer research released last week by a group of farm organizations showing Illinois consumers care about who produces food and are misinformed about the family farmers who grow and raise the majority of food produced in Illinois.

Research conducted from April to July shows the Illinois farmer is held in high esteem by the public, but consumers have reduced trust in modern farming techniques and have serious doubts about how their food is produced.    

The research showed “a pervasive mistrust of farming practices that stems from consumer concerns about food safety and animal welfare on so-called ‘factory farms.’”

Nauhauser said that mistrust is seen here.

“We have that attitude right here in Woodford County. I think people here, overall, trust farmers. The issue is they have questions,” Neuhauser said.

The farm bureau offers a program for teachers called Summer Agricultural Institute where that mistrust has been seen.

“We have found there are a lot of teachers so removed from agriculture they do not have understanding. It’s an issue right here.”   

People outside agriculture, she said, do not understand how heavily regulated farmers are, compared to their own practices that somewhat mirror agriculture.

“Think about it this way. People like nice lawns. They seed, fertilize and put down weed and feed. They aren’t regulated. Farmers are heavily regulated,” Neuhauser said.

“Granted we don’t eat grass. But, the chemicals people put on their lawns can run off and pollute our ground water. We’re all in this together.”

Misunderstanding

Those organizations making up Illinois Farmers include the Illinois Beef Association, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Pork Producers Association and the Illinois Soybean Association.

Their results were announced on Aug. 17 at the Illinois State Fair.

“While having trouble clearly defining ‘factory farms,’ consumers uniformly feel that such farms dominate Illinois agriculture.

In a statewide poll of more than 1,100 non-farm adults commissioned by the groups and conducted by GfK Roper, Illinois residents believe, on average, that 54 percent of Illinois farm products come from ‘corporate farms,’ versus 46 percent from family farming,” the research found.

“In reality, the most recent USDA statistics show that individual family farms and partnerships dominate farming in the state, representing 94 percent of all farms.”

Neuhauser said the vast majority of farms in Central Illinois are family farms.

She said today because of technology farms are bigger — many owned by several members of a single family.

Ron Moore, chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association, said, “The American family farm should be the most trusted food-producing enterprise in the world. But our customers think the family farm is passing from the scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. We may have larger farms with less diversity, but we are still farming together as a family, and often on the same land as previous generations.”

Jeff Beasley, Illinois Beef Association vice president, added, “We know that the best people to tell the story of today’s agriculture are the people that raise the livestock and farm the ground day in and day out.

“We look forward to sharing the true story of farming and helping consumers get to know us in a way so that they can connect with farmers and those who raise livestock.”

Seventy-one percent of consumers in the poll said they felt more positive about farming when told the facts about the percentage of family-operated farms in the state.

“Farmers care deeply about our responsibility of raising safe and healthy food,” said Brent Scholl, Illinois Pork Producers Association president.

“We must look for every opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialog with consumers and be a trusted source of information on questions about how our food is grown and raised. But the current misunderstanding of consumers toward farming is really quite widespread — and creates substantial damage to their trust in farms and farming.”

Responsibility

Two-thirds of non-farmers say they are not knowledgeable about farming practices used on Illinois farms.

But two-thirds also say they are personally concerned about “lax regulations of corporate farms.”

And an equal number expressed concerns about “the role of big business in farming.”

Donna Jeschke, immediate past-chair of the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, said, “Myths about food production are today’s urban legends, invading our classrooms and churches. It’s high-time we in agriculture step back and consider the non-farmer and why they’ve come to the conclusions they have.”

Neuhauser said farmers have to embrace this issue and invite people to their farms to see how modern agriculture is done to address this trust issue.

“Just last week I read an article that said people see those signs alongside fields for products like Pioneer and think those companies own the fields,” Neuhauser said. “They think those are corporate farms.”

Neuhauser said she believes most people locally trust the farmers producing their food. But, she added, farmers cannot take that trust for granted any longer.

“We need to be willing to share our story. Farmers need to do this to protect their way of life and livelihood. We all eat. That’s our common ground,” Neuhauser said.

“Farmers don’t have anything to hide. The urban people need to ask questions. Farmers need to be willing to answer those questions.”