Do We Need Some Tough Love for the Ag Illiterate?

by Bryan Bjerke
June 22, 2017

A recent Washington Post story on agricultural literacy (“The surprising number of American adults who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows” June 15, 2017) included the results of an online survey commissioned by the National Dairy Council that showed seven percent of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

The survey also reported that in interviews with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at an urban California school, “more than half of them didn’t know pickles were cucumbers, or that onions and lettuce were plants. Four in 10 didn’t know that hamburgers came from cows. And 3 in 10 didn’t know that cheese is made from milk.” Wow.

But before we get too high and mighty about this, know that it’s easy for us in the ag community to shake our heads, sigh and even mock those poor, uneducated souls. Easy, but wrong. We can’t be shocked by this, but we also shouldn’t be dismayed. It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of good work already being done.

There are many smart, vigorous programs in place aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in South Dakota alone. For example, South Dakota Corn’s “This is Farming” campaign, along with events and educational programs for children and adults, is making marked progress. South Dakota Soybean is also using events such as the “Developing Consumer Trust” workshops and one-on-one outreach from farmers to consumers and children. And, Ag United for South Dakota, an organization developed and supported by a coalition of farm organizations in the state, has, as one of its goals, educating consumers about the importance of food production. Ag United has sponsored meetings, listening sessions, dinners and farm tours that bring consumers closer to farmers and their operations.

These groups have done tremendous work to increase understanding of what modern production agriculture is all about and the issues that are important to its continued success. It’s a fine example of the kind of programs that are going on in a lot of places and should be going on in even more key cities around the country.

More Work To Do

All that good work aside, we also have to admit that we have more work to do, apparently a lot more. And I think it’s time for our entire community to realize that all those existing messages and campaigns are fine, but there needs to be a harder edge projected as well because the continued success of agriculture in America is at the foundation of the long-term success of the rest of America.

American consumers need some tough talk that includes showing what life is like in countries that don’t have thriving food and fiber production. And every link in our food production chain, from farmers to processors to grocers to government agencies, needs to come on board with ideas, passion and money. Research shows that the average consumer is at least three generations removed from production agriculture. Consumers need to know that farmers and farming may not be doing it all perfect, but they are doing it so consistently well that consumers are taking our safe, economical and abundant food supply for granted.

Consumers have to cut through a lot of messages every day in a world heavily cluttered with information. Direct talk that begins with shared values can communicate the essential role of agriculture in the American way of life and our future survival has to start now, with all of us. It’s time.

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