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Improving perceptions of farming is important to industry

Editor’s Note: Please enjoy this Dr. Rosmann column from 2015.

How farmers care for their land and animals are opinion-laden and emotionally sensitive subjects for nearly all farmers. Their feelings are understandable.

Any threat to the capacity of agricultural producers to satisfy humans’ basic needs for food and materials for clothing, fuel and shelter triggers an alarm because of their “agrarian imperative” to produce essentials for life. The source of the threat makes little difference, whether low markets, unwelcome government policies, unfavorable weather or something else.

There is much tussling among individuals and organizations about how food, fiber and renewable fuels should be produced. Several farmers whom I contacted shared their thoughts concerning the public perception of farmers.

Their feedback motivated me to ask several more farmers: “Is what Americans think about farming a big deal?” Among the 10 farmers with whom I conversed or exchanged emails, seven were from Iowa and one each from Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska.

All but one person agreed that perceptions of the general public about farming deserve more attention and responses than they are getting from farmers. The farmers varied in what they feel needs to be said.

Agricultural production methods which respect the people engaged in farming, as well as the land, water and air as their primary concerns, are deemed likely to succeed in public opinion realms. A fair income is expected by nearly all Americans, the commentators said, but not at the cost of exploiting resources that harm current or future producers and their families, and neither the resources needed for agriculture nor the consumers of agricultural products.

Only a small minority of agricultural producers regularly violate environmental and health standards, the farmers agreed. Two people said habitual violators seem more concerned about profits and disregard the harm their production methods pose.

Three farmers said habitual violators have the right to farm the way they want but they have to bear the consequences. They said habitual violators of accepted conservation and health practices and ethical standards of raising livestock not only attract negative public attention, they deserve public outrage, such as being interrogated in person, by the press, or undergoing criminal prosecution.

All but two of the farmers I interviewed told me violators damage the public perception of agricultural producers and sometimes prompt rules changes and legislative actions that end up being a burden for producers.

“What can agricultural producers do to advance an accurate understanding of their farming aims and methods?” I asked the farmers I visited with. Here are their recommendations:

Individual farmers should contact legislators and government officials that have a say about farming methods with their opinions and recommendations.

Talking with individual agricultural producers about expressing their recommendations can be helpful, but it depends on the relationship.

Even though it is difficult and often avoided, it can be necessary to speak up to the media about farming because farmers understand agriculture better than most anybody, and the public likes to hear from farmers directly.

Everyone, including farmers, should be concerned about the planet and its capacity to feed people and survive into the future.

Two persons said visitors to farms with buildings and grounds where animals (or poultry) are raised should not be allowed to take photographs without permission from the owners; owners also should review the stories and pictures before they are released to the public.

Two other persons said not allowing visitors or photographs raises suspicions that these producers have something to hide.

All the livestock producers are concerned about visitors contaminating their premises and animals (or poultry) with diseases and said the public should recognize and respect this concern.

Two persons who are organic producers welcome visitors and media inquiries and said other crop producers should welcome visitors, but they understand why other livestock and poultry producers might feel differently.

One person thought “stewardship models” of farming should take priority over “business models,” which he said dominate agriculture, so that farmland remains fertile even if the current farming operation doesn’t succeed financially

Four farmers said some media and consumers have formulated ideological conclusions about farming and seek only information that confirms their beliefs; these persons should not be “written off” even if they don’t contribute to useful discussion about the future of agriculture; they need accurate information.

The perception of farmland ownership falling into the hands of a few is only partially correct because small acreage farmers are fast increasing; one person said land owners who wish to sell farmland should consider offering their land in smaller lots so the many small producers seeking land have a chance to purchase agricultural tracts

This small sample of agricultural producers feel that what Americans think about farmers and farming is important. The opinions of these farmers agree almost entirely with the findings of a research project investigating health literacy among rural people which three faculty of the Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health and I undertook three years ago.

Agriculture’s public image is a big deal! 

Dr. Rosmann can be contacted at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at mike@agbehavioralhealth.com.

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Dr. Mike Rosmann is a clinical psychologist and former farmer/rancher offering advice and commentary on agricultural behavioral health.

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