Cultivating Relationships
by John Lee

2009 was not an easy year and my fervent hope is that 2010 will be a bit easier. It is not that I mind the work. Sweat equity is a lot of what goes into being a successful producer. Metaphorical blood and tears I can do without. We worked hard in 2009 and things within our control did quite well but the weather was enough to cause a marked increase in the rate of hair loss I have been experiencing. This needs to stop.

2010 will be a great year because in 2009, even more people cottoned on to the value of eating local, the need to support local farms and the value of fresh food and open spaces that are protected and managed by farmers.

Thus one of this year's winter efforts that might go a long way toward making for a better summer sales season is cultivating the relationships that will become helpful. This is called advocacy and there is no shame in self-advocacy. But we as farmers need to also advocate for the culture of agriculture. Food and farm advocacy should not be left to the well-intentioned amateur. Farmers must stand up and tell their story- "make it real," as some folks like to say. But we need to do this in a way that is neither strident nor condescending.

There is unbelievable ignorance and wanton misunderstanding out there in the general public and an awful lot of folks believe what they want to believe (given no better believable information). In the semirural village where I live, there was recently a photograph of a comely young lady reading in the cow barn and a cow gazing photogenicly at the book as if reading as well. This raised a hue and cry in the local press as someone protested that the cow was being abused. I was uncertain what the nature of the perceived abuse was. Had the girl's father not taught his cows to read so that this cow felt badly about its inability to comprehend the written word, or was this simple ignorance about why cows might be in the barn in the evening or winter?  Parenthetically, I have also been informed by an adult that "real chickens" have their legs on the top! (Who knew?) Presumably the only chickens this person had ever seen were in the meat case at the grocery!

I find this level of ignorance stunning and incomprehensible. And as a farmer, I find it unacceptable. I know as well as the next person that there are only so many hours in the day. But the fact that there is still so much unfathomable misperception in a region famous for the higher-than-average levels of education and upwardly mobile food-related resources (restaurants, markets and media) makes me think that in my downtime I should be working on this issue. Of course this is not a seasonal problem and it warrants our attention throughout the year. But now is the time to get involved with one or two groups that are either prone toward agricultural misunderstanding or positioned to do something about it.

There are two groups that I think do a particularly good job of addressing the idea that agriculture in America is a good thing: 4-H and Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom. The former works directly with kids; the latter with kids through their classrooms. Both go a long way toward inculcating sound agricultural values and understanding while also instilling good social and academic values.

As farmers, we should be involved with one or both of these groups because educating the minds of our children will enhance their ability as adults to make reasoned and sound decisions. For years, we have neglected the agricultural education of our children because we were taught that cheap food was good for us and knowing where it came from was unimportant. We are now paying for that serious mistake.

Crop production and the food we take home to our families must not be relegated to the chemistry departments of isolated scientists. Our children must be taught to be smarter about their diets. As summer approaches, consumers must advocate for farms and farmers must advocate for themselves (and by so doing, for consumers). Make no mistake: Advocacy is not the same as advertising. At this time of year, we should be trying to do outreach even as we may be trying to sell product. Doing so will not only improve our markets, but also our mindsets!

John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.