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Farm Notes – Lies of omission, Rules of farming

If you are a farmer that sells directly to customers (instead of wholesaling) you’ll probably be familiar with the following awkward situation.
Scene: a stall at a crowded farmer’s market, a farmer listening to two customers discussing her products.

Customer One to Customer Two: I just love her carrots and salad mix! Everything is certified organic. . .

Farmer, interjecting: Actually, we are not certified organic. . .
Customer One to Customer Two: And her chicken is delicious. It is all free range; they just live on grass. . .

Farmer, interjecting: Ah, well, er, they are on grass but they eat regular feed too. . .

Customer One to Customer Two: And the best thing is that her chicken isn’t genetically modified, like the stuff you get in the big stores.

Farmer, interjecting: You know, a lot of chicken you buy isn’t genetically modified. . .

We often see this kind of situation. Customers will assume we are farming in one way when in fact we are farming another way (organic/conventional), or falsely attribute qualities to our products (GMO-free/high in omega 3) that would add value to our products if true but are not true. Our dilemma is whether to speak out and clarify a misunderstanding or shut up and let it go. If the former, we risk opening a Pandora’s Box of complications and explanations that are a.) too complicated to go into in a busy retail environment and b.) lead to trouble. I, for one, resent having to explain why I farm conventionally when I have never said otherwise. I feel like I’m answering the question: have you stopped spraying your carrots yet?

Yes!

I mean, no!

Your Honor, I reject the question!

If the latter, and we simply don’t saying anything, then we feel complicit in a lie. Shouldn’t we, as farmers, shoulder the role as educators, guiding and informing the public about food and how it is produced? That might mean explaining that chickens cannot live on grass alone, that insisting on outdoor raised meats could, actually, lead to mistreatment of livestock, or that certification processes work for farms of some sizes but not others.

That’s the right thing to do, of course, and when we do it, we are surprised at how many customers understand our position and are willing to change their food values. They trust our use of antibiotics in livestock is judicious; our crops are grown without reckless use of inputs. But that explaining takes a lot of time.

Sometimes, when there is a lineup of heavy-walleted customers at our farm store, all telling each other that our products have the combined qualities of Viagra, the Fountain of Youth and Nivea skin softener, I think to myself: why bother?

*? *? *

It has been more than 20 years since a fellow named Chris Granstrom published a fine article on the seven rules of farming in the US-based Country Journal. Not all his points apply to smaller family farms in Canada, so I’ve condensed and summarized the best of his list.

Rule 1: Small farms have to be marketers as much as farmers. Everyone knows that small farms can’t compete with large farms in the commodity market. Larger producers will always grow and raise cheaper than a smaller producer. What this means is that small farmers have to work harder at marketing their products.

Rule 2: Farmers are self-reliant. Much of the protective structure that society has created—from workers’ compensation to workplace grievance procedures to unemployment insurance—does not exist for small farmers. Heck, there often isn’t anyone around to pat you on the back when you’ve done a good job. Nor is there anyone to kick you in the pants when needed. Granstrom calls this “self-reliance with a vengeance.”

Rule 3: You can’t judge a farm by the scenery. Rolling pastures and bank barns may look good on calendars, but it is often harder working landscapes—think hoop houses and floating row covers flapping in the wind—that suggest a more viable farm.

Rule 4: In farming, timing is everything. Procrastination is punished more severely on a farm than anywhere else. A farmer has to fit farm work into the not-always-on-time progression of the seasons. The opportunity to seed, spread manure, and harvest crops is often very short; if you miss it, it is gone. You may never catch up. It follows, then, that a farmer who can move quickly to take advantage of the seasons, is also the best prepared—machinery is tuned, supplies laid in, help available.