Last month, I wrote about opening our home to an exchange student from India and how much I appreciated the experience and its many facets (“Our Life through a Very Different Lens,” Mohawk Valley Living February 2016). There’s truly no better way to gain insight into a completely different culture than to share your life and open yourself to the opportunity to learn something completely “foreign.”
This past January and February, our farm (Jones Family Farm) held two Open Farm Days in which we invited the general public to visit, pet baby goats and lambs, and have some hot cocoa—all free of charge, no strings attached. This is our fifth year doing so, and the event seems to grow every year in popularity.
Why would we want to invite the public onto our farm? In many ways, I feel the same way about Open Farm Day as I did about opening our home to an exchange student…visitors learn and ask questions about what we do and we have the opportunity to gain even more in return. But what could we possibly gain? I’ve seen more grown men kiss baby lambs right on the lips than I can count. I’ve witnessed toddlers’ faces light up when they get to feel a newborn goat’s silky soft ears. I’ve chuckled with fellow mothers and grandmothers when they see for the first time what a nursing lamb does to its mother. Even the hard-to-impress teen crowd gets a thrill when they feel the tiny horns starting to form atop a kid goat’s head. No matter what their age or profession, people just adore hugging baby animals! You could say I’m addicted to the thrill of sharing something so new and so precious. I’m a very lucky gal!
Of course our Open Farm Day has its ulterior motives, too. It is good for business. We open a small store stocked with our products and allow people to shop, if they are interested. But more importantly, our farm business is based on a relationship with the community. We sell our farm products primarily in the Mohawk Valley and little elsewhere, so we had better cultivate warm, fuzzy feelings amongst our friends and neighbors! Allowing the community open-access to our operation and meeting each member of our farm family face-to-face reinforces that relationship and in many ways is simple, good-old-fashioned sales.
But more than anything, I feel a deep-seated responsibility to agriculture. Open Farm Day is our opportunity to remind people that farms are important. Few people realize that in the last 20 short years, New York State lost half of its dairy farms. Where did they go? Many were consolidated, but just as many sit empty and fallow. From our farm, one can look across the West Canada Creek and see farms dotted up and down the valley. Very few of them are still in the business of farming. Most barns sit empty. Quite frankly, I’m afraid of the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” reality that farmers face every day. For example, few people know that dairy farmers are facing the longest run of low milk prices seen in recent memory. How could you know? Unless you are in a business that caters to dairy farmers, are a dairy farmer or are related to one, you would never know. Your first inkling of trouble may be seeing the “For Sale” sign in the yard. And by then, it is simply too late.
I also worry about the general public becoming disconnected from agriculture, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation. Farmer friends across this country are constantly amazed at what the public doesn’t know. Sadly, it is rare that someone sharing food or agricultural news has an actual basis in farming. So what do you do if you are worried about pesticides or herbicides? Ask a farmer what they do. Are you worried about antibiotic use in farm animals? Ask a farmer what her protocols are. Do you hear disturbing stories about tainted milk, animal abuse or hormones in meat? For the love of Pete, ask a farmer! One specific area, biotechnology, is regularly demonized because the vast majority knows so little about it. In fact, it seems those most against genetic modification don’t want to hear from farmers that have 20+ years direct experience. My personal knowledge in the subject is purely academic since we are not crop farmers, but I understand that farmers need tools and seeds that work. If I have a question about such a complex issue, you can bet I’ll ask a farmer familiar with the subject.
The unsettling truth is farmers have never felt so disconnected from those they feed. Very real conversations meant to direct food production rarely include the voice of the farmer. But every farmer has something valuable to say! So, this is where I’ll get a little preachy: It’s our fault. It’s the fault of us farmers because we rarely want anything to do with the public. We farm because we like to work with animals, in the fields or with equipment…not because we enjoy talking to people. But that is our downfall. It is our own fault that we are “out of sight, out of mind.” Farmers need to step out of their comfort zones and host their own version of an “Open Farm Day.” It could be as simple as giving a talk to the lady’s group at church; volunteering to talk to your kids’ class at school; or inviting the local Slow Food group to tour your farm. Maybe farm advocacy groups like The Farm Bureau or more county extension offices like Madison County could facilitate educational events. The time commitment is minimal and the effort more than worthwhile. It’s a lot like hosting an exchange student: We have everything to gain when we share our love, knowledge and passion.
***Do you have farming questions but don’t know any farmers? There are many great resources online, including Ask a Farmer, Dairy Carrie, I am Agriculture Proud, Nurse Loves Farmer, and Farm Babe, to name a few.