Rural Route Opinion Column – Amy Eckelberg
This isn’t your typical column about relationships. I won’t be discussing how to get out of the dog house or 10 date ideas to try this winter. Rather, I am going to talk about the complicated relationship between farmers and consumers.
My curiosity got the best of me after reading many times that the farmers’ market was the place where people learn about agriculture.
It just so happens that my dad’s cousin has sold produce at the nearest downtown farmers’ market for more than 20 years so I decided to help at his stand one Saturday morning in August.
I’ve worked a lot of booths in my life, from college organization fairs to the Farm Bureau booth at Farm Technology Days, so interacting with people in this setting is natural. I also have been to my share of farmers’ markets, however, never on the selling side of the table.
As people walked by and looked at the corn, red potatoes, beets, carrots, onions and zucchini, I smiled and said hello when I made eye contact.
Not long after the farmers’ market opened I talked with an elderly man who said he and his wife lived in a nearby retirement home. He enjoys the farmers’ market because it’s close enough to walk to and they get fresh air and produce at the same time. When we started the conversation, I don’t think he had any intentions of buying corn but as we wrapped up our conversation, he purchased six ears.
As the morning went, the crowd grew but the interactions stayed the same.
A woman stopped to purchase some red potatoes. As I weighed them, I asked how she liked to make them. We swapped recipes and she went on her way excited for the evening’s meal. I too, couldn’t wait to try the new potato recipe.
Not long after there was a man who stopped abruptly and asked if our corn was a genetically modified organism. While I explained that only 10 percent of sweet corn sold in Canada and the U.S. is GMO, it didn’t matter. He was looking for a specific answer. We gave him what we thought was the answer he was searching for but he walked away.
Out of all the interactions, only one person asked about GMOs, a topic I thought would be talked about more frequently. To my surprise, not one person asked about pesticide or fertilizer use.
Most people who stopped wanted to know where the produce was grown and if we grew it ourselves. When I mentioned the location, and explained it was about a 20-minute drive, the sale was almost always a done deal.
What does this tell me? Even though you can’t make assumptions based on a one-day experience, this was proof that people are craving to know the local farmer. They want to see the faces and interact with the people growing or raising their food.
If you can build a relationship with someone the challenging conversations will come easier. Before you talk about what you do, you need to build a level of trust. Doesn’t that happen with most relationships?
Your relationship building doesn’t have to start at the farmers’ market. There are plenty of community fairs and festivals that showcase food and would be a perfect place to talk about what you do. As the population gets more removed from the farm, the relationships you build are going to be more critical to the future of agriculture.
It was Maya Angelou who said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
If farmers can make people feel good about who they are and the love they put into what they do, the level of trust we have as a farming community will only continue to grow.
I challenge you to attend a farmers’ market or food festival. Maybe go one step further and visit with a chef or a food blogger. These are the unique relationships we need to foster to maintain and grow the level of trust with consumers.
Amy Eckelberg was raised on her family’s dairy farm near New London in Waupaca County. As an active member of the Sandy Knoll 4-H club, Eckelberg grew up showing hogs and dairy animals at the Waupaca County Fair and was a New London FFA member. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2012. Amy is the Executive Director of Public Relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and resides in DeForest with her husband.