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Michael Femia
I grew up in an agricultural area, but didn't develop an understanding of what farming is until later in life. I designed this website so consumers can have a balanced impression of farmers and other people who dedicate their lives to agriculture.
Michael Femia
I grew up in an agricultural area, but didn't develop an understanding of what farming is until later in life. I designed this website so consumers can have a balanced impression of farmers and other people who dedicate their lives to agriculture.

For most of my life, I've lived in relatively close proximity to agriculture, yet, until a couple years ago, I hardly knew anything about it. Today, after visiting almost a hundred farms around Upstate New York, and exploring the guts of the food supply chain as a trade journalist, my respect for agriculture has evolved from a nice thought, to one of the strongest guiding forces in my life today.

There's a need to breathe more life and personality into under-developed consumer perceptions, and WhatFarmingIs.com grew out of the realization that there are very few central resources for consumers to learn about agriculture straight from the people who live it. 

I'd argue that my personal story is significant to the field of ag-communication, because I passed up a number of opportunities to be more connected, and didn't develop a mature understanding of the agricultural industry until later in my life. In other words, you could say that I am the epitome of why something like this needs to be done.

Opportunities I Had To "Get It"

You can't leave my hometown in any direction without passing someone's cows or some kind of agribusiness.

To the west, there's a dairy cooperative, a factory that makes parts for milking machines, and a commercial bottling plant for ultra-pasteurized products like the half-and-half cups on the counter at diners. To the east, there's a dairy supply company, a feed mill, a tractor equipment warehouse, and a factory that makes yogurt and cottage cheese. To the south, there's practically endless farmland and forest land, and to the north is my old high school, which is home to one of the most active, robust FFA chapters in the Northeast. But growing up, this was all just scenery to me, despite having a lot of opportunities to learn more about the agricultural industry from friends, co-workers, and ag-ed at my former high school.

In high school I worked at a pizza shop with a couple guys who helped their families with dairy chores in the mornings, and then came to work all evening. Some of my high school cross country teammates were heavily involved with ag-ed and FFA. (When our team was building a new race trail in the woods, some FFA members came out on their summer vacation and poured cement for our bridge supports.) And a few of my best friends dated farmers' daughters. I even went square-dancing with the former Dairy Princess of Madison County.

See? This agriculture thing has always been in the cards.

Fast forward: I got into studying nutrition at The University of Vermont (VT's land grant university), and spent a couple of summers doing some work for Jonathan Barnes, a friend of mine who runs a small (~1 acre) CSA outside of Utica. Jonathan seldom switched on his tractor, and he avoided chemical pest management. For his customers, this meant sometimes accepting buggy lettuce. For me, it meant that aside from weed whacking pathways, everything I did was by hand: I used a massive fork to till pre-planting, uprooted tiny weeds to bake in the summer sun by carefully scraping around planted crops with a stirrup hoe, and hand-pulled and rattled more mature weeds, which were an inevitability with two guys trying to manage an acre by hand, even despite mulch coverings.

Working Jonathan's field added unprecedented contrast to my seasonal neck tan, gave meaning to the 'hard work' part of agriculture, and reminded me how good it felt to make stuff with my hands. Jonathan and I were constantly doing something (usually not in the same place) but I was able to talk to him a fair amount about the reasons he did certain things–  It was the beginning of my realization that even managing a single acre takes a lot more than dropping seeds in the ground. Nonetheless, I still had a tremendous amount to learn.

A few years later, In 2011, I moved to New York City, and before it spit me back out, I helped design hydroponic gardens for schools and food pantries in low-income neighborhoods, and more recently, spent a year writing for Produce Business, a trade magazine that covers everything fruits and vegetables for an executive audience. For me this was a crash course into the the guts of the food system. Specialized information on everything from farm to plate was fair game.

The Reality Of Invisible Cities & The Unique Necessity Of Agriculture

Eventually, as I learned bits and pieces about produce elsewhere in North America, it dawned on me that I still knew almost nothing about agriculture in my own state. It felt pretty embarrassing. Shouldn't the information just have diffused into me?

This reminds me of a book I half-read, called Invisible Cities, which is more or less a story of a great explorer recounting his adventures to the lord of his empire. He beautifully describes city after city: places that are vastly different than one another: places where different languages are spoken, people wear different clothes, eat different food, speak different languages... And eventually, it is established that all the while, the great explorer has been describing a single city, one in which there are many different people who might see each other in passing, but never really get to know one another.

When I thought of the idea of "invisible cities" as a way to explain indifference toward agriculture, I realized that this type of indifference is a luxury of a society where we depend on other people to make just about everything that we need. When it comes down to it, the people who produce food are the most vital members of society, but also some of the least known, given that they tend to live in remote areas, and keep pretty busy, whereas the majority of the populace lives in cities. 

As my experience demonstrates, even living around farms doesn't guarantee a sophisticated understanding of agriculture. So how can the agriculture-consumer disconnect be resolved, and why does it matter in the first place?

So Who And What Influenced Me?

This spring, I'll be writing a lot about the people and experiences who shaped my perception of agriculture. My transition from indifference to respect was one of the more powerful events in my life, and I think discussing it could help improve the way that agriculture's stories are shared.

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Contributing to a publication that is built by people involved in agriculture can improve your visibility, and give consumers a central resource to see what farming is. Think of it as a no-dues promotional cooperative.

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