Food is a hot topic these days, plastered all over social media, the daily news cycle, and even the recent democratic presidential debate. Consumers are paying more attention to how their food is grown and coming up with more questions about its impact on the environment, animal welfare, and nutrition. The new interest is both a blessing and a curse for the industry, as some are happy to see consumers willingness to learn about food product, while others feel pressured by the growing laundry list of consumer demands and the lack of patience that many shoppers seem to have when it comes to the timeline that it might take agriculture-at-large to move the needle.
To further complicate matters, Americans’ new appetite for more transparency in food production has left many of them more confused than ever, according to a 2017 survey. Food labeling alone has led to a slew of new label claims and symbols including labeling programs from private third-party certifiers. The US Food and Drug Administration has also refrained from defining a number of widely used claims like natural and pasture-raised. Over half of Americans feel like food labels are misleading, while 11% distrust them completely.
Agriculture is incredibly complex and can be difficult to understand from the outside looking inward. For many people, farming is simply not part of their daily lives. Today, only 1.3% of Americans are employed on a farm, while only 11% are employed in jobs related to agriculture or the food sector. When uneducated consumers levy criticisms against farmers, they often feel like they are under attack from consumers who mostly didn’t care where their food came from as long as it was cheap and available until the last decade or so.
Despite some of the protracted fallout, consumers’ new interest in food education is starting to build a bridge between urban centers and rural communities where much of agriculture takes place, but getting consumers and farmers to meet at the bridge’s middle for a productive and educational dialogue may require a few docents along the way.
“We are trying to get more people to understand modern farming because there are so many misconceptions. People still think farming is like their great grandad’s farm in the 1950s and if it doesn’t look like that, then something must be wrong,” Darcy Maulsby, author and agricultural historian, tells AFN. “We paint a very real picture. Here’s the reality of farm life. Here are the challenges and here are the opportunities.”
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Maulsby is the author of several books capturing the history of farming in Iowa including Calhoun County, A Culinary History of Iowa, and Dallas County. Her forthcoming publications include Iowa Agriculture: A History of Farming, Food and Family and “Iowa’s Lost History on the Titanic. She grew up on a century farm in Calhoun County, Iowa, and still lives a few miles away from the land, which is currently used for soybean and corn cultivation.
Iowa is unquestionably America’s heartland, with 90% of the state designated to agriculture production sprawling across 30.6 million acres. The state ranks first in the nation in corn production, generating $8.78 billion in corn during 2018 alone. It’s second in soybeans, generating $4.85 billion in value, according to USDA NASS. It also boasts the most hogs and laying hens in the country, as well as ranking first in egg production and second in commercial beef production.
In her educational outreach efforts, Maulsby works to engage with the general public on the subject of farming. Although she understands that some consumers already have their minds made up about farming and the environment, her work primarily targets what she describes as “the movable middle,” or consumers who are open to accepting new ideas and information about food production.
And instead of educating people, which can put some people on the defensive, Maulsby likes to think of herself as a liaison that helps people connect the dots in food production. She takes every chance she gets to engage with the public in a wide variety of topics.
Take farm size, for example.
“Consumers think nothing good can come from ‘big ag’ and I don’t like that term because 96% of the farms in Iowa are family-owned. Our farm is 520 acres and we are a corporation, so are we big ag because we have a corporate farm?” she explains. “The reason most farms have bigger farms or operate as corporations is because that’s how you make a living, not because you are trying to hurt the environment or your urban neighbors.”
Maulsby also serves as a board member for the Iowa Soybean Associaton’s Iowa Food and Family Project, which aims to champion the improvement of the state’s farm families and their dedication to food production. Each year, the program runs an expedition farm tour that takes 40 urban, non-farming folks on a motorcoach tour of Iowa’s farm country so that they can engage with real farmers in their state.
Maulsby doesn’t want to tell people what to think. Instead, she tells them they ought to do their homework about a particular issue before trusting the first article they read or first conversation.
“Don’t just take my word for it, do your own homework. I will tell you parts of the story you won’t hear in traditional media. One of the beauties of living in a time where we have all this information at our fingertips is that it puts the burden back on all of us to not just accept things at face value. If people honestly do their homework and look at both sides of these issues, they’ll often come to the same conclusions I have.”