By Vivian Howard
I’ve had the chance to spend time with and interview a handful of farmers in Florida this year while working with IMPAC. Each of of these five farmers grow fruit — strawberries, watermelon, and one of them was trying their hand at blueberries for the first time. In most of my visits, I’ve spent time with their whole family, too, and I’ve learned the act and experience of farming seems to be the same everywhere and across crops.
Having grown up on a farm and in a farming community, it’s striking to meet other farmers across the southeast and learn that their story very much parallels my family’s experience. Regardless of whether everybody in your family works on the farm, farming is very much a family business — it’s a 365 day a year job that ultimately requires the understanding and cooperation of everyone. Though my dad grew tobacco and raised commodity hogs, our family’s challenges on the farm seem to mirror those of the farmers I’ve met this year — from the levels of red tape and regulation, to issues with labor, to the always-on-call nature of running the farm.
It has also been interesting to see how many of these farmers share what they do with their children and hope that they will carry on the same work. That, too, is a common experience at home in Eastern North Carolina. This sense of responsibility and desire to pass on a farming heritage is something you don’t see in a lot of professions. Doctors don’t necessarily want their kids to become doctors, but there’s something tangible about farming, a level of ownership and stewardship that is prevalent.
Perhaps more than anything, these interviews have illustrated the profound need for farmers to tell their story.
As consumers it is easy to become detached from our food source. All too often, we don’t realize everything that goes into producing a strawberry and getting that strawberry to the grocery store. IMPAC farmer’s, in particular, are committed to sustainable and transparent farming methods and use sophisticated processes — from weather stations that can turn on and off water supply and computer programs that can manage crop fertilizer — in an effort to maximize efficiency, reduce water use, and contribute to improving water quality in surrounding areas. If we better understood that process, I think consumers would value that strawberry more and certainly value the person who grew it more.
Unfortunately, in my experience farmers tend to be among some of worst advocates for themselves and their industry. They don’t get into farming to become a public speaker — it is by nature a very a solitary profession. So being an advocate for themselves and the industry, in many ways, goes against the very nature of what it takes to be a farmer. The idea of having a united voice in media or government can be a foreign concept. That tends to be a big problem for farmers because if you don’t speak for yourself, someone else is going to speak for you.
I’m proud to be a part of these conversations for this reason — IMPAC is helping tell the stories of farmers who might not otherwise do that on their own. There’s work to be done and it’s no easy task, for sure, but I truly believe that sharing a farmer’s experience with others will better connect us to our food, and to each other.