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March 31, 2014 | About WhatFarmingIs.com
Who And What Drove Home My Interest In Agriculture
My interest started off as a hobby, and became a lot more real and captivating once I started meeting people who work in food and agriculture.
March 31, 2014 | About WhatFarmingIs.com
Who And What Drove Home My Interest In Agriculture
My interest started off as a hobby, and became a lot more real and captivating once I started meeting people who work in food and agriculture.

Farmers will probably always laugh a little when I tell them it wasn't until I lived in New York City that I really began to appreciate the scope and complexity of the agricultural community. It's true, but after all, anything to do with NYC is a peculiar introduction to ah-hah moments in agriculture.

In reality, I didn't just have some single, heaven-sent epiphany. It took a fair amount of research, but ultimately, the people I met played the biggest role in driving home my passion for learning about agriculture.

Rose-Colored Soilless Dreams

My curiosity began as a hobby. I've always enjoyed gardening, and before my now complete New York City living experiment, I helped start a horticultural education program at a youth corrections facility in Northern Colorado. Pent up in the city without personal green space, and having just read a book about futuristic urban "farmscrapers," I started exploring an interest in hydroponics. I found a part-time job helping design soilless gardens for food pantries and schools, and hydroponics also turned out to be a pretty nice way to grow some lettuce and kale in my apartment.

Altogether, hydroponics is a pretty neat system: you can control just about every variable, right down to the photosynthetic photon flux, the term for the number of light beams that belong to the spectrum that plants can make use of. And who doesn't like the illusion of being in total control? (You can regulate inputs, but countering pests is a little more precarious.)

Hydroponics really fascinated me, I think in part because I got into it at a time when I wasn't creating much of anything physical. This is a snapshot from a gardening blog I started.

As my hobby escalated, I found myself almost blindly racing toward mastery of hydroponics. I became a member of the New York Botanic Gardens so I could access plant science journals, and bought an office-sized printer so I print off all kinds of research. I was e-mailing professors in plant science at land grant schools around the country, inter-library loaning books on the properties of soil and artificial growing media (oh man, Growing Media for Ornamental Crops and Turf was awesome), calling coconut fiber distributors in Sri Lanka to pick their brains... And then I had a "wait a minute" moment.

The more I thought about it, I became less enamored with the idea of attempting commercial agriculture on a rooftop, which is what a couple of companies I was drawn to were beginning to explore at the time. All that special infrastructure, all that inconvenience– it just didn't pencil out as something I wanted to pursue. Dream deflated, but it left me a lot more hooked on agriculture.

Caught Trying To Slip Into An Industry Conference

As I struggled to find my place, and figure out what agriculture is all about, one of the most important experiences I had was when Jim Prevor, also known as The Perishable Pundit, noticed that I tried to register for The New York Produce Show as a student (which I wasn't–but they got in for free), and ultimately decided to throw me head first into writing up coverage on presentations by industry experts from around the world: former executives from Kroger and Wal-Mart, a Wall Street Journal analyst... My first stop was a symposium on international trade, something I knew absolutely nothing about.

This was one of a handful of pivotal, refreshingly challenging experiences where I realized that as a consumer, and even someone who had taken some initiative to study the food supply, there was a lot I had taken for granted. There's incredibly sophisticated system that delivers perishable food from farm to table, and improves the ways we farm, and at that point, and it was humbling to accept that I had just scraped the surface of it.

In the months following, I developed an obsession with regulations and statistics: I poured over the Census of Agriculture from 2007, closely scrutinized organic legislation, allocated entire ink cartridges for printing out USDA reports, and after reading work by Steve Savage of Applied Mythology, began to look more closely at pesticide use and toxicity. 

A section of an info-graphic I put together on agriculture in New York State.

This is where I became particularly interested in consumer education: through my own fact-checking and statistical analyses, I found that many discussions in consumer journalism and advocacy were misrepresenting agriculture, which irked me, but also excited me that there could be an opportunity to stand-up for an industry I had become fascinated by.

Waltzing With Arrogance

But I was so excited about my revelations that I became serially guilty of arrogance. I became preoccupied with dramatic calls for "revolution in the food system," which I associated with urban elitism, intellectual laziness, and bandwagon anti-establishment sentiment, which didn't really help me make new friends, or become a better educator.

Pinging around the internet with such bitter preconceptions, and the goal of "fixing people's views" often yielded content that was altogether alienating, or about as inviting and diplomatic as a passive aggressive note left by a neat-freak roommate: "Hope you've had a swell day. Just wanted to put it out there– it's really unsanitary and discourteous to leave unwashed coffee mugs at the sink for any extended period of time. Also, when I suggest that you have a lesser understanding of what responsibility is, I don't mean it as an indictment of your character! –Jeff"

I'd obsess over negative works on agriculture by urban writers, saying to myself, "You know what? While someone else is out there creating, they're at a desk criticizing, and that's just ridiculous," and it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I wasn't some seasoned expert: I was just a self-licensed armchair deputy, sitting at my desk, pondering the integrity of criticism coming from other people's desks.

Earlier in life, when I considered a career in education, my philosophy was that education should make people feel smart, teaching a framework that gives them the dignity of feeling like a stakeholder in their own discoveries. I was disappointed in myself for forgetting that.

But the more embarrassing, and most important revelation I had was that at that point, I hadn't actually forged many ties with people in agriculture, and had passed up a lot of opportunities to do so throughout my life. Dairy comprises the bulk of the agricultural economy in New York State, yet here I sat in New York City, on my moral soapbox, casually discussing the importance of looking more closely at agriculture, and I had never stepped foot in a milk house.

Talking About Farming With Farmers

So I called Tom Junglen, a longtime family friend, and dairy nutritionist for Cargill. There are few people in my life I've known longer: Tom's wife, Mary Kay, babysat me as a kid, and I haven't known any of my friends today longer than their daughter Ellen, and their son Jim.

Over the course of a morning, Tom and I visited three farms. The first was run by Mike Conde, who's about my age, and managing about 50 cows by himself on rented land. Without a family background in agriculture, he managed to get interested in dairy, and learn a lot about the business from Bruce Barnes, another farmer Tom and I visited that day.

Bruce's daughter Christine now writes for WhatFarmingIs.com and has a pretty special background: she left home at 19, and ended up returning to the family farm later in life. Another story of hers I recall is how a friend of hers from NYC visited the farm, and turned out to be terrified of the dark: he was so accustomed to city lights!

Last, we stopped to see Brian Newton, whose family has been farming the same land for over 200 years. Before he could finish a joke about ranking 3rd in his high school class, his father Harold chimed in, and said, "Yeah, but Brian, there were only 5 kids in your class!"

With only 3 visits down, I began to recognize some of the basic differences in farm management, and identify the variables that matter to a dairy farmer–things I don't think consumers hear about in sufficient detail often enough. I don't know that I ever thought that there was some kind of simple recipe for a farm, but after that day, I realized how important it is to appreciate that no two farms operate the same.

There are some minor differences, like Brian bedding his cows with a soft byproduct from paper milling, the Barnes' using cow mattresses, and others elsewhere using sand. Or the difference in Mike's challenges as a one-man-show trying to start fresh in a capital intensive business, verus the Newton's who need to have a couple of non-family employees to get everything done. Or that Brian Newton grew up playing with toy trucks on his dad's farm, waiting for the day he could drive the tractor, while Mike Conde managed to discover agriculture even without family ties, and Christine Barnes left town for a while, but came back to raise her family on the farm she grew up on.

Much of my passion for ag-communication revolves around the need for consumers to see a more complex story. From the perspective of a farmer, some of the little things I appreciate might even be seen as mundane, but had I never been exposed to the diversity of the agricultural community– in terms of who's in it, and how they do things– I wouldn't have the same respect as I do today.

What I Learned From Watching Tom

In an upcoming series highlighting the people who helped me understand agriculture, I'm going to share more about the time I've spent out with Tom, but on that first ride-along, aside from realizing that there's a lot of variety in farm management, I began to see that common agribusiness support professions like animal nutrition, agronomy, mechanics, veterinary medicine, and extension are all vitally important, but chronically under-acknowledged in consumer-facing dialogues.

I think this is important because these people are a human reflection of how sophisticated modern agriculture is. They're highly specialized diagnosticians, and discussing what they do can do justice by their professions, but also bolster respect for farmers.

One of the best pieces of business advice I've heard came from a guy who got a masters from Harvard, and then turned down admission to Oxford to sell fruit on the sidewalk– eventually he started his own grocery store. He told me, "Know what you know. Know what you don't know. And get to know people who know those things."

In the dairy business, hundreds of thousands of dollars can change hands on even the smallest farms, and when there's a specialized decision to be made, farmers often turn to someone they can trust for expert advice. And beyond a specialist like Tom, who's on the front-lines advising farmers on precision nutrition and animal care, among other things, there's an entire world of research and development: thousands of people with careers in advancing agriculture.

Tom taking a sample of a farmer's forages for testing.

To Fully Appreciate Agriculture, You Have To Meet People

Somewhere in my travels, I saw a quote on the side of a building that read, "A city is nothing more than its people," and I think the same is true for establishing appreciation of any human institution, agriculture included. The census reports and USDA analyses were a pretty big hint to me that there are a lot of lesser known stories about agriculture that ought to be told more often, but my passion for being a part of telling those stories wasn't ignited until farmers and other people in the industry entered my life. 

That's what inspired the tagline on the homepage of the website: "If you want to truly understand what farming is you have to meet the people who live it."

Stay tuned to meet the people who played a big role in exposing me to what farming is, and read other articles straight from the people who live it.

For those involved in agriculture– farmers, students, agribusiness professionals– if you'd like to contribute to WhatFarmingIs.com, e-mail me at Michael@WhatFarmingIs.com or call me at 315-794-4819, and I'll send you a link to start your own blog here.

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