My story begins thirteen or so years ago. I was 20, in a relationship, a junior in college picturing two very different futures. One saw me with a PhD in something like public health or international development, working in a war-ton part of the world living the life of an aid worker. The other saw me married with kids and a stay-at-home wife in New Jersey. Either path I chose, I knew one definite – I would not be on the road my family was in the process of choosing: farming.
Thirteen years ago my brother was busy looking at colleges with agricultural programs and my parents were starting to search for a farm to call home. That summer I stepped foot onto my first dairy farm. It was dirty and disgusting. Mud and manure mixed in the summer heat to produce a throat-closing stench. I saw my first parlor milking. I found absolutely nothing interesting or attractive about the entire enterprise.
Farming was a physical embodiment of the differences that separated my brother and I. It was the direct opposite of me. I love order, personal space, mental rather than physical labor; in a word: intellectualism. On that first farm this is what I saw: an ignorant, dirty, backward, dysfunctional man doing a job full of hard work and even less mental stimulation for very little money. In truth, I was disgusted by the entire experience. How could my family feel this was the path for them? Who would walk into a life like this with their eyes wide open?
Ten years ago, I was was working in NYC as an account executive for a small advertising agency in Midtown. I was newly single. I’d realized over the course of a three year relationship that the man I’d pictured a future with actually looked down both on me and my family. The primary reason: their quest for a farm. A blue-collar existence was below, he felt, his intellectual pedigree. Ten years ago this February we signed the papers to purchase what is now our farm.
In May of 2000, I ran away for the first time. Silly since I was 23 and took my 27 year old sister along with me, but I did. When I came back a month later, my family had taken possession of the farm. My brother spent the summer up there with a friend doing hay. I went up for one or two weekends that summer. The farm was a weekend retreat, a paradise. A place to sit on the front porch and read, buy fresh veggies at the farm stand, play “country farm”.
Eight years ago I ran away for the second time (another story for another day). While I was in London trying to figure life out, my family was struggling with the realities of dairy farming. Twenty cows were overwhelming, the learning curve was exhausting. Again I didn’t understand any of it. Farming was a foreign land, like my time in India. And that’s honestly how I looked at it. I didn’t understand the language or the reasons behind what was happening, the accepted practices.
This is my point: Farming is a different world to nearly every American. It has its own language, practices, motivations and realities. Farmers do an absolutely crap job at trying to explain this to the rest of the country. Their inability to communicate in a way the “general” population can relate to causes misunderstanding, miscommunication and mistrust. It’s a language barrier.
This week’s Nightline expose of the dairy industry is a prime example of the problems that arise when 1% of the population does a job the remaining 99% has absolutely no understanding of what so ever. Coupled with the fact that the report lacked any real, qualified response from a farm group such as New York Farm Bureau, I feel it was meant more to sensationalize an industry already suffering as a group of evil, unethical and cruel men. Instead of having a spokesperson from NYFB or another organization speak they went directly to a clearly nervous and startled farm-owner. Yes, he should be brought into the report but to make him accountable for industry-wide practices is unfair. The report never looked into the reasons and motivations behind things like tail-docking and de-horning. The farmer’s response to a video clip and pointed question of animal abuse was “I don’t see what you see” because in truth, he didn’t see the same thing.
This week’s events only reinforces why The New Farmer is so important. I’m not trying to turn the world around, I’m just trying to break down that language barrier a little so agriculture isn’t so foreign to the rest of the world. The answer to that question I ask myself all the time, the “how did I get here?” question has an answer. It’s been a thirteen year journey from disgust to love, from bias to understanding. What I thought I knew about farming thirteen years ago is what most people think they know. It’s a little information defining an entire industry, a group of people, a culture. One report, one post isn’t going to fix anything but it’s one more step toward finding common ground.