Making ends meet on farms and ranches can be challenging, even in the best of times. With unpredictable weather and prices for products, some farmers and ranchers are diversifying their income. As vaccine rollout continues and more of our neighbors join me and many others in getting vaccinated, I’ve been able to start traveling to meet with farmers and ranchers again. After more than a year of virtual meetings with folks, it is wonderful to see the Farm Bureau family face to face again.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in East Tennessee and met some of our members doing incredible things. I am looking forward to a full summer of travel meeting with grassroots leaders around the country. Getting out in the field and meeting with our members energizes our work here in Washington. Your American Farm Bureau is most effective as the voice of agriculture in Washington, D.C., when we speak directly about how things are going on farms and ranches across the country as we engage with leaders in the administration and Congress.
The stories I heard in Tennessee could be told in farm country across our nation. Families like the Redmans are planting roots in their rural communities, but it can be hard to sustain a farm business as costs rise. Growing up on a farm outside of a small town in Eastern Tennessee, Meredith Redman, remembers playing in the creek and the hayloft of her dad’s farm. Meredith and her husband, Joseph, have a child of their own now, and Joseph has taken over for Meredith’s dad raising cattle at Grace Meadows Farm. Meredith also teaches third grade in a nearby school and shared that most of her students didn’t know what went on at a farm. That’s a familiar story these days as the public is more disconnected than ever from agriculture and food production. With some families moving out from urban centers to be in the country, you can be surrounded by agriculture and still not know much about it.
Meredith and Joseph realized that cattle alone wouldn’t sustain the farm, so they started hosting weddings on their farm for family friends. Their business grew, and now they have plans in the works to open a petting zoo and pick-your-own produce and sunflowers. The Redmans have opened the farm gate to school and church groups so the community can see what happens on the farm and better understand all the work and care that goes into farming.
I also had the opportunity to stop by Sweetwater Valley Farm. Just a few years ago, they built an automated facility to milk 460 cows. This new robotic facility is part of a 1,600 head dairy operation that uses 50% less labor than its other milking facilities. Last year, they opened a viewing area so people could see how the automated facility worked. They hope to welcome 10,000 visitors this year who can also buy cheese that has been made on-site for years.
Consumers want to know more about where their food comes from. Deep down, I think there is a bit of the farmer spirit in each of us: it’s in our nature to want to grow something with our own hands and be able to put it on the dinner table. The pandemic seems to have inspired many first-time gardeners. We all feel a deep connection to our food: Our meals are more than nourishment, as we gather around the table as friends, family and neighbors to share our joys and our sorrows.
This heightened interest in the source of food brings an incredible opportunity to tell our story. We have almost limitless options and outlets to share our farm stories today. Most of us carry around everything we need in our pocket – a smartphone. Sharing a photo of a calf being fed, a crop being harvested or a new technology being used and sharing it on social media can bring those in your social circle a little closer to the farm. And if you are interested in opening your farm for agritourism, there are some tremendous success stories serving as examples. We have a great story to tell, and a great opportunity thanks to a curious public. There has never been a better time to engage.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.