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American Farmers Discuss Misconceptions About Their Industry - 2002-03-23

Farm preservation organizations in the United States estimate no more than 13-million Americans live on farms today. Fifty years ago, more than 30-million Americans did. People in the agriculture business say that's part of the reason why so many Americans know so little about their industry, and why they have misconceptions about it. Farmers and agriculture journalists met in Chicago this week to talk about this gap in understanding.

Rice farmer John Janes from Louisiana says he does not often see stories covering agriculture make the national news. But, when they do, he often wonders whether the writer understood what he or she was writing about. "I am not sure if they are ignorant, or just don't care. Most of them seem to think their food comes from a grocery store," he says.

Agriculture journalist Lynn McKenna-Frazier of the Fort Wayne News Sentinel in Indiana says part of the problem is the declining farm population. As a result, a growing number of agriculture reporters have never lived on or even near a farm. "There are relatively few reporters who are going to be coming from rural backgrounds, simply because the numbers have been declining in those areas, they have been growing in suburban areas," he says.

Farmers and agriculture reporters spent Wednesday talking about how to improve the public's understanding of what farmers do and the problems they face. The forum was part of Agriculture Day, an annual event by the farming industry to raise Americans' awareness of agriculture issues.

Kay Ledbetter of the Amarillo News in Texas says one problem is farmers are sometimes reluctant to talk about their business. "They want to keep their private business private," she says. "They do not want anybody to know how much they are getting in government subsidies. But if they told people what those subsidies went for, then the general public would not get so up in arms when they hear these great big numbers."

A few months ago, a Washington-based environmental group posted on its internet web site a database of farmers who receive federal government subsidies. Farmers say some of those numbers might look big, but the cost of farming continues to rise while prices for crops and livestock have not. They say without federal subsidies, the United States could become more dependant on foreign-grown crops.

John Janes of Louisiana says those subsidies also help keep alive farms that are important to their local economies. "You are talking about entire communities that would dry up and blow away if it were not for the jobs provided by farming and its related industries," he says.

Farmers say when the national media does pay attention to agriculture, it is often because of something negative. Recently, there were rumors that cattle in the state of Kansas had contracted the highly contagious and economically-damaging hoof-and-mouth disease.

The rumors turned out to be unfounded, but hog farmer Tom Schneider of Iowa says reports of those rumors sent the commodities markets downward. "I do not think the national media understands what a foot-in-mouth disease scare will do to the commodities. We lost money. It is money out of our pockets," he says. "They [the media] broadcast this without any basis at all. It is money out of our pockets. The corn market went down that day, the cattle market went down that day."

Agriculture reporters say they are often frustrated with editors who are looking for exciting stories that will grab the public's attention, sometimes leaving important but complicated stories poorly-covered, if they are covered at all.

Cotton farmer Dale Wells of Arkansas says he has been surprised at what he feels is a perception by some that farmers don't care about the environment. "The farming area that I am in, we like to consider ourselves active environmentalists. That is what farmers are. We live there. We raise our families there," he says. "We are certainly not going to pollute the environment. We are going to do everything we can to protect the environment and have the safest food for the consumers. We are consumers ourselves."

Environmental groups have criticized the agriculture industry for its use of pesticides, and the amount of chemicals that ends up in streams and rivers. But corn farmer Doug Schroeder of Illinois says when farmers began planting genetically modified, or GMO, crops, to resist pests without chemicals, some people and organizations got upset at that, too. "Quite frankly, I want to plant what the people want to consume. If that is non-GMO, I do not care, I'll plant it," he says. "If it is GMO's, great, we'll work with that."

Several European countries have refused to accept GMO crops from the United States. Some environmental groups have also attacked the crops, calling them "Frankenfoods." Mr. Schroeder says he favors testing these new crops to be sure they're safe before farmers can plant them, but he isn't afraid of them. "I, as a farmer, eat the exact same food you eat," he says. "I have confidence in it and I think that message needs to get out that it is safe, we are all eating the same thing and the concerns should be minimal."

The farmers say if they expect the public's perception of agriculture to change, they're going to have to help make that happen. Paul Penner is a grain farmer from Kansas. "We have an obligation to meet with people and explain things. We need to also be able to try to get into their shoes and understand what it is that motivates them: why they are scared, why their perceptions are the way they are," he says.

Reporter Lynn McKenna-Frazier of Indiana says changing public attitudes toward agriculture will be a slow process, because many Americans give little thought to where their food comes from. "Nobody in this country has ever walked into a grocery store and faced bare shelves, unless there was a panic because of an oncoming blizzard of something," she says. "You just don't have a worry about your basic food supply."

The forum was organized by the Agriculture Council of America, an organization that works to increase public awareness of agriculture's role in society.