meeting farmers

My understanding of farming changed after I met farmers

I am a food science and human nutrition major with an AAS in culinary arts that had previously served almost 9 years in the US Navy. Even with all of that, I had absolutely no idea about production farming. Everything that I knew about farming was whatever I had read or seen on the internet or TV. This of course includes movies like Food Inc. My perceptions of farmers were that they were only nice farmers if they were organic farmers and bad if they weren’t. I assumed that because of what I had seen, via various forms of media, that enormous multinational corporations owned the majority of farms in the US. I thought farmers were exactly the way they are often depicted on TV, simple characters lacking any kind of sophistication without any regard for the environment or animals. This was not something that I thought was specific to any region, I just thought all farmers were this way. In the case of Illinois farmers, well, I just thought they really liked corn and soybeans.

I had no idea. I suppose the reason for this is that I had never really been on a farm, nor did I know any farmers, except for the inner-city hipster, “strictly organic” variety. This past semester all of that changed when I decided to enroll in a class on “farm, food and environmental policy.” The whole point of the class was to compare and contrast the differences between farms and farming practices in California to those of Illinois. Our class toured farms and talked to farmers in both states and I can tell you that everything I thought I knew about farmers was what someone else wanted me to think. After going to meet and talk with these fine men and women, I was finally able to make my own decisions and come to my own conclusions.

I found myself to be completely wrong about my assumptions. Farmers are very sophisticated. The technology that farmers use is mind-blowing to me! I found out that they use GPS navigated equipment to get within two inches of accuracy when applying fertilizer and planting seeds. They use drones to survey their fields, which allow them to detect soil issues and identify weed species. To accommodate the needs of their customers, they use different varieties of seeds and are involved in commodity trading. Farming is neither a yokel’s business nor some large industrial machine. Illinois farms are, I have learned, for the most part (97%) family-owned businesses. In talking to these farmers, I have realized that their way of life is something that has been passed down to them by their elders from generation to generation and that they have an intense interest in conservation. For them, taking care of their land and animals means that they will have something to give to their children. This way of life is a source of pride for them.

The biggest take-away that I’ve gained from this experience is that misinformation about these people and their businesses spreads through conventional media, and especially social media, like wildfire. I believed it and so do many others. I’m not sure what exactly motivates all of this misinformation, but I would highly recommend to anyone that’s interested in learning about their food go to a local farm and ask for a tour. Talk to your local farmers. Ask them questions, get to know them and find out what they do. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.

Originally posted in Farm Week.

Regina Cortez

Chicago, IL