Farming and rural. Those words used to go hand in hand. And in most areas, they still do, but more and more farmers in every region of the country are finding themselves surrounded by suburban communities as our population grows. Farmers in urban and suburban counties face unique challenges, but they also have a unique set of opportunities and lessons we can glean from as we work together to strengthen agriculture.
Get to Know Your Neighbors
Highways and houses have dramatically changed the landscape as urban centers spread. What doesn’t change with the landscape, however, is the farm spirit. I recently traveled to Connecticut where farmers have decades of practice farming in the middle of suburban sprawl. Every farmer I met there was committed to making their community better, whether they were just starting out or farming land that has been in the family for generations. These farmers connect with consumers directly, as many of them sell straight to the customer or in a local market. Others have regular opportunities to share more about farm practices with their neighbors who look out on their fields from less than 100 yards away.
We can’t expect our neighbors, suburban or rural, to naturally understand the ins and outs of farming. Simply living next to a business doesn’t make you an expert, any more than living near a hospital makes you a doctor. That’s why building relationships and listening is so important. Being a good farmer starts with being a good neighbor, whether that be planting extra trees or helping prepare the soil for a neighbor’s home garden. Farmers in suburban and urban counties are on the frontlines of building bridges with consumers.
Engaging with Lawmakers
Agriculture is critical to local communities and economies in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, lawmakers in urban areas often lose sight of that, simply because they don’t know farmers or haven’t ever been to a farm. This is where farmers near suburban areas are uniquely positioned to give lawmakers a firsthand look at agriculture. During my visit to Connecticut, a local farm family hosted a dinner where about half of the state’s Congressional delegation, plus several state leaders, made an appearance. In many states that’s unheard of! But that’s the power of farmers who are active in their local communities. Don’t ever lose sight of the valuable role you play. You have a voice and a vote. You might not turn the tide with one farm visit, but building relationships over time with local, state and national leaders can reap benefits in strengthening our farm communities for the future.
Adapting to the Market
While there are a good number of farms around the country that have been in business for generations, I’d wager that few of them, if any, look the same as when they started. I know mine sure doesn’t, three generations in. Farmers must adapt and diversify to meet the demands of changing markets. I am amazed when I meet a farmer who can point to a sign that says, “Established in 1819.” And I am just as amazed when I speak with a farmer who got a loan and started from scratch in 2019. Both are producing for what today’s customers want and need, and both are committed to leaving their land and communities better than when their farms began.
Farmers are innovators, always looking for ways to be more efficient and adapt to the changing times, from testing out new crops to adding robotic technology. I met with one apple grower who pointed out innovations from his father, grandfather, great grandfather and great-great grandfather. Today, he’s adding his own to the list with an automated packing line and plans to break ground on a cider distillery.
Of course, I know there are real challenges that come with farming close to suburban areas as well, from safety concerns near busy highways to the added pressure of development and rising land costs. We need to work through those challenges together in a manner that avoids hostility while ensuring farmers can continue stocking America’s pantries.
Farm Bureau is committed to providing all our members with the tools they need to succeed. If you farm in or near an urban county, I encourage you to check out the new Urban County resources page on Farm Bureau University. And as always, please reach out to Farm Bureau staff—from the county to the state to the national level, we are here to serve you.
While our challenges may vary from region to region, American farmers are united in our dedication to support our neighbors and to grow safe, sustainable food for all. It’s not easy work, but we farm because we love what we do and we want to see our families, our communities and our nation thrive.
*AFBF will host a webinar on July 18 at 11:00 a.m. EDT with Farm Bureau staff and leaders from across the county to hear how urban county Farm Bureaus are creating opportunities and value for urban farmers within Farm Bureau. Register for free here and visit university.fb.org to learn more.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.