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Telling agriculture’s story fosters trust in farming

Published: Friday, May 9, 2014 12:09 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 4:22 p.m. CDT

Today more than ever, people are interested in what’s in their food and how it’s grown.Unfortunately, many people know little about agriculture – from my non-farming neighbors here in Bureau County to those in more urban and suburban areas like Chicago.

I’ve been very interested in telling the story of agriculture and letting people know where their food comes from because misunderstandings and unanswered questions can lead to distrust in common farming practices. Do you know what Bureau County farmers grow?

n 7.3 million bushels of soybeans (2013).

n 53.8 million bushels of corn (2013).

n $28.7 million in livestock sales (annually) – mostly from cattle and hogs.

I’ve found that straightforward conversations and personal relationships can increase confidence in food and in farmers. The Illinois Soybean Association supports the Illinois Farm Families initiative and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which provide opportunities for farmers to connect with consumers and answer questions about food and farming.

For example, I attended a private screening of “Farmland,” a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker James Moll, sponsored by Illinois Farm Families and USFRA. The movie offers an intimate, first-hand glimpse into the lives of six young farmers and ranchers across the United States, chronicling their high-risk/high-reward jobs and their passion for a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Influential Chicago-area bloggers and Illinois Farm Families Field Moms attended and then participated in a panel discussion with Illinois farmers. I visited with movie-goers before and after the screening to answer additional questions one-on-one.

One Chicago blogger who’s toured several Illinois farms through the Illinois Farm Families Field Mom program wrote, “The film does a good job of de-mystifying aspects of the industry by opening up the gates and parading viewers through the barns and fields of America.”

Some Chicago-area moms are visiting the barns and fields of Illinois themselves and sharing their experiences through their own blogs and the Illinois Farm Families blog at www.WatchUsGrow.org.

I’m also working on a project to tell the story of agriculture at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit, American Enterprise, will show how industry, manufacturing and agriculture move through history together, and will help visitors understand how advances in agriculture supply our food. This exhibit is scheduled to open in May 2015.

Internet research, films and museum exhibits help tell our story, but firsthand experience makes the strongest impact. For Bureau County residents, the story of agriculture is a local one, making firsthand experience a real possibility.

Bureau County farmers can make an impact in our own communities. As tractors roll through the fields, an open-door policy makes a difference in how people perceive farming. Farmers should, and many already do, welcome folks to the farm. But conversation is a two-way street. It is easy to fall into farmer-speak. I forget that my idea of an elevator (grain facility) may be very different from someone else’s idea of an elevator (easier to take than the stairs).

For those who don’t farm, where do you go for answers to your questions about food and farming? Consider local farmers as the first source. After all, you know us. Our kids attend school together, and we shop at the same grocery stores. Ask us your questions, or ask if you can visit a farm. Just remember that this time of year, we’re very busy.

Experiences with Illinois farmers help us become more credible than the misguided information often found online and in mainstream media. As farmers, we want to be a trusted resource for food decisions or for forming opinions about agricultural practices.Have questions about telling your story or looking for answers from a local source? The Illinois Farm Families website, www.WatchUsGrow.org, is a great place to start.

Sharon Covert is director of the Illinois Soybean Association and a soybean farmer from Tiskilwa.

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