Any Benefits from a Change in Perspective?

farmer bright lights big city

I saw a photo on a farmer friend’s Facebook page (it’s Iowa hog farmer Larry Sailer for those of you who wonder). The photo (by Agriculture Impressions) was of a beautiful farm, with corn growing in the foreground and a perfect red barn in the background. Familiar text crossing the sky quoted Shawn S. Stevenson saying “Most Americans are two to four generations removed from the farm. The general public has very little idea of what agriculture is about. Food is cheap and plentiful. Everyone takes it for granted.”

The quote is used a lot. In fact, when I searched Google for Shawn S. Stevenson, the same quote came up several times on various websites. I finally saw a site that put a bit of Stevenson’s bio there, it said he was a “Clovis, California, citrus grower and former President of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.”

I don’t know the Stevenson family, but after decades of time with farmers I feel like I know many families like them. They are the salt of the Earth. They are hard-working people who come through for their neighbors. They take pride in doing a job well and the role they play in our food supply.

There is a real pride in being on the same farm for generations, so much so that many farmers I know put that in their bio event when limited to 140 characters. Most farmers (though certainly not all) cannot imagine what their life would be like if they were born and raised in a city.

But for my family, our vision of the world has been very different for generations. I didn’t know any farmers growing up but I knew the stereotype. When someone mentioned a farmer the picture had more to do with what they looked like and how dirty their trucks were than what they valued or how they really approached their day. Wow was I wrong (and I’ve never seen Larry at work, but he is every man at a meeting). I take a lot of time trying to help my city friends see farmers for the more than I know they are and sometimes like today, I think that maybe people from the farm should try to see the world through a city girl’s eyes so I asked the question aloud instead of keeping it to myself:

“I wonder what would change if we looked at it as most farmers are two to four generations away from population centers? Would it change the approach? It would help farmers realize they are far away from daily life for urban folks like me just as much as I’m far away from the farm. Just a question to ponder.”

But what I was picturing was more speculative like this:

farmer bright lights big city

When you think of city folks, what do you picture?

See, I’m one of those people who loves living right in the thick of things, who wants to have lots of choices in ethnic restaurants within 10 minutes of home, who sleeps right through the planes flying overhead because I’m near the airport but can’t sleep in the country when loud frogs bellow or owls screech,. who’s neighbors are roller derby girls, gay guys and lawyers. But there are lots of city girl stereotypes I don’t fit and those things I use to describe me don’t really get to the things I really value.

Do you think the conversation changes based on the image, judgments and stereotypes that go along with it?

Because I think at the end of the day, it’s hard to feel removed from something that not even your grandparents felt a connection to… that’s something we share whether we’re urban or rural. We share a deep interest in wanting our children to have the best the world can offer but maybe our perspective guides us to think of those things differently. We all value relationships with the people we count on day in and day out and almost all of us could find room for a few more friends at dinner time.

If farmers continue to view city folks as removed from the reality farmers know and city folks continue to see farmers as insulated from today’s world, can we move the conversation forward on things we all care about? Or do you think by taking some of the initial steps to understand the other’s perspective…. by focusing on the fact that we don’t understand things from another person’s point of view or by trying to see the world from where they sit, do you think we may change our own way of thinking?

Larry’s response to my question was “That is a great point Janice and is the point of why I have said, as farmers, we must first listen!” He may seem like the stereotypical nice quiet guy farmer I could have pictured years ago, but as I worked through the inspiration that brought me to write this post, he said “I think it’s a great original type of idea. Very new type of thinking for an old pig farmer. I’d like to share it.” janice person

How do you see the world and what do you think about a city girl’s view?

Janice Person is a city girl who loves cotton and biotechnology. She stumbled into a passion for communications early in life and has never looked back. A colorful adventure is her personal blog and her work in public affairs for Monsanto includes blogging and social media outreach.  Follow her on Twitter (@JPLovesCotton).

 

 

 

23 comments

  1. Brent Boersma says:

    Janice – great post and great perspective! So much of what I value so strongly about being back on our families farm has been solidified by the 15+ yrs Brooke & I lived in Los Angeles. Its given me such a broader perspective and opened my eyes to how easy it is for farmers like us to live in “silos”. Great reminder to keep reaching for connections & conversations with real people outside of agriculture! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Very nice Janice! I love the idea of trying to FIRST listen!! I think sometimes aggies get so caught up in trying to share, share, share that sometimes the questions and concerns that non-ag people are trying to voice get lost or unaddressed. Whereas if we were to step back and LISTEN first, than we would be doing a much better job of communicating.

    As far as perspectives go, I’ve had the unique opportunity to experience both sides of the fence in living in both California and North Dakota. I would consider the area I live in “country” and my town a “small town” in comparison to other cities in California, but when I visited North Dakota, I really got to experience small town and country. And I feel like because of it, I am more balanced and well rounded. I think that more farmers and ranchers could benefit from traveling to these cultural epicenters (cities) and vice versa, city people should travel out to the country (agritourism). I think that seeing the other person’s life through your own eyes would allow you to be able to understand that person’s perspective a whole lot more. Which in turn would make communicating a whole lot easier. There’s so much elitism that goes around when it comes to where we live.. Farmers think that where they live couldn’t get any better and city folks think they have it made in their uptown neighborhoods. And I think California brings it to a whole new level, I experience it ALL THE TIME when I tell people I am moving to North Dakota. They literally look at me like I’m crazy and ask me why!? And I think that elitism can carry over to when it comes down to how we live our lives and the food choices we make. So I love the idea of moving BEYOND our differences, and onto the things we have in common. The things people, no matter where they come from, can agree upon! Beautiful!

    • Janice says:

      Yeah, having gone to college in Oklahoma I got plenty of strange looks too. When I take time to have an actual discussion with people about it, they slowly realize there are different things to appreciate in different places… doesn’t mean one is better than they other.

  3. Sherry Collins says:

    Great post Janice! I love the kind that make you think. As a former Iowa farm girl, who has been an urban woman in Minneapolis for the last decade plus, I often see both sides. On one side I encounter urbanites who will bash farmers or farm practices without ever having stepped foot on a farm (or even having met a farmer) but I also have farm friends who don’t understand urban living and will make comments that are just as judgemental and dismissive of urban life without a thought as to why that makes sense in an urban setting. I’ve had many a discussion on both sides trying to bridge the gap of understanding. Often though, it depends on how willing folks are to acknowledge that there is something to be learned and understood from both sides. Great post.

    • Janice says:

      Right on Sherry! I frequently feel like I’m bridging which can be great and sometimes it can make it tough too…. I feel so much a part of both groups that it can be uncomfortable to point out things at times… Yeah, I know, you know how shy I am!

  4. DebbieLB says:

    I totally agree…I like to say that first, I’m a mom…with the same concerns that every mom faces. How we each deal with them is different, and our location often determines how we solve various problems. But we are more alike than we are different. It is important to connect with each other, instead of just preach or even teach to the other.

    By listening and connecting, we can both learn…the city mouse and the country mouse.

    • Janice says:

      Momming certainly breaks through a bunch of barriers! So many things you are focused on with those kids of yours and you are obviously doing pretty well! :)

  5. Janice:

    You are so very right–thank you so much for sharing. We must all “listen to understand, instead of listening to respond”. Empathy is a powerful tool and a good conversation can not occur without it.

    I spent the first 22 years of my life in a city, and the last 15 on a farm in rural Nebraska. Urban dwellers and rural folks have more in common than they sometimes think. At the very least we all are interested in “where our food comes from”, and that is certainly an important reason to have a good conversation that results in both of us learning from each other.

    This was a great read.
    Anne (Feed Yard Foodie)

    • Janice says:

      Thanks Anne and you should know I love your blog! I think the common ground is far more common than the differences, it is just sometimes that the differences are in plain sight.

  6. Marcie Williams says:

    I’ve read and re-read the pots from Janice and Shawn and still have several questions of my own.I’m glad there is dialog between rural producers and urban consumers, it’s a must for all to feel their input is important. My question is, Why is it always the farmer that has to take the back seat and allow the consumer to be the driver? Don’t get me wrong, I value their thoughts, questions and comments, all which make our decisions vitally important to the livelihood of both parties.
    As a spokesperson for agriculture I’ve traveled the world over and have witnessed the bright lights and different world of those who live in the city. I’ve talked to those people who scurry by with their Starbucks in one hand, the Washington Post in the other,and an iPod or cell phone to their ear, oblivious to what the rest of the world is doing. Many of us who produce your food live part of our lives in the same metropolitan world you do. But how many of the urban consumers even thinks about trying to mingle with producers in their rural world?
    I’ve often wondered why it is so irrational to think that the experts from the rural world are not as knowledgable as someone who
    actually has no first hand experience of the rural country and how that industry works. It’s like asking your plumber to do open-heart surgery on your mother. Yes, your plumber has read many articles and reports on the surgery, may have even watched one on Youtube but does that make him the logical choice to do the surgery?
    Is there a reason why I, as a producer, must admit I’m wrong on how I treat my soil or my livestock just because the consumer isn’t familiar with my practices? What would happen if several articles were published by someone who says he is an expert that says doctors shouldn’t be treating patients for cancer because they really don’t know what the cause of it is, their practices haven’t cured it so therefore what they have been doing should be changed or stopped altogether. Would that lead to finding the cure? I don’t think so.
    Should we have open dialogs with each other? Of course we should but they should be with open minds, from both sides. Many farmers and ranchers have lived in the urban consumer shoes but how many urban consumers have lived in our boots? I’d say the percentage is pretty low. They are happy to live in the bright lights, rushing to and from jobs in bumper to bumper traffic, passing the time listening to their iPods. That is the world they desire and I applaud them for their decision. I prefer to take my jog along a country road, listening to the frogs and birds, watching a beautiful sunset. What’s more – I don’t apologise for it.
    Urban consumers should feel safe about their food supply and should ask all the questions they want. Should they ask them from the person that does it day after day or from someone who reads about it and doesn’t like what they see? I don’t like to see hats worn backwards, jeans down around someone’s hips or body piercings and tatoos but does that make me an expert on these things and why they shouldn’t be done? No. I should ask these people why they do what they do and maybe I’d be surprised to learn they are just as normal as I am.
    I’d love to tell my story about how and why I farm to anyone who will listen but I won’t apologise for what I do. My farming practices are done for a reason. That reason is important to me. It should be important to you, the consumer, as well. That’s why I do what I do. I only ask that those who are fortunate enough to go to bed with a full stomach, continue to have an open mind about agricultural practices and ask the farmer why they do what they do and not rely on some journalist who has only read about the practice in a book or watched a video on YouTube.
    I ask the city girl to visit a country girl and experience first hand what we do. Then ask how we do it and why we do it the way we do. Exchange the whys and what if’s of both worlds by experiencing it first hand. Will we change our each other’s way of thinking? Maybe. Maybe not but we may understand each other better.

    • Janice says:

      Marcie,

      I think you’ve gotten the wrong impression about me. I have been part of agriculture for a couple of decades, including a dozen years of living in the middle of nowhere. If you would look at my blog http://janiceperson.com you will see I write a lot of posts that are about bridging the urban-rural gap. In fact, because I do that so often, feel that is so important, the farmers who created this blog asked me to add my perspective.

      The thought came to me as I was on a dear friend’s Facebook page and we had an open dialog, one based on mutual respect. I think everyone deserves that. If I in any way implied that either group should look down their noses at the other, it was not intended and I certainly want to apologize. Perhaps the farmers who know me better understood me better in knowing what I meant.

      jp

      • Marcie Williams says:

        Janice I certainly didn’t take your perspectives in a negative way and my rambelings weren’t meant as an insult to you. My apologies to you. Please continue to share your thoughts with all of us. As a member of American Agri-Women I beleive our motto says it all – “We can do it together.” -

        • Janice says:

          Great! I wanted to be sure I wasn’t misunderstood. The wonders of not hearing tone of voice, etc. Thanks for joining the convo!

  7. Larry says:

    If I could comment: I have been advocating for several years now and it’s not because the consumers are demanding that I explain what I do as a farmer. I talk and listen to them because they can influence how I farm. Laws and regulations are made by the people that speak the loudest. If I do not join in my voice is not heard. I think this is a huge mistake. Can I convince the extreme foodies? Probably not. But I have talked to thousands of “normal” folks and most have been very willing to listen and even seem to agree with what I explain that I do. AND I always open up for guestions. That has always been my favorite part of a meeting.
    The point is I DO want to have a part in the “TALK”.
    LJ

    • Janice says:

      Thanks Larry. And I’ve seen how well you balance listening to customers and being sure your voice is heard…. you do a great job of actively participating in the conversation!

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  9. Brenda says:

    Janice,
    I really liked this post. You bring up a very interesting perspective. Personally I feel like I have a very different view from many of my fellow farmers because I have done just what you ask of farmers…lived in the city. I actually moved from my small town of 350 people to LA for 4 years to get my bachelor’s. I wasn’t planning to every come back to this small town, but now I’ve been back for 6 years farming full time on my family’s operation. I think that there is a disconnect, but I also think that there is more pressure from the farmer’s side because we are producing the city’s food, so as farmer’s we feel like people are always looking our way, and we don’t really even care to look their way. Which is where the dialogue and listening comes in. It’s tough to hear that someone who lives so far away and has never really truly worked in the dirt has a hand in how you’re going to produce. But I also think in talking to many of my city friends, who pretty much know one farmer, me, that they are fed a lot of information that just plain isn’t true and has a lot of fear marketing behind it.

    This is where I think it’s imperative to get our voice out there of what is truly going on at the farm level (here is my involvement with that, http://www.nuttygrass.com). It’s nothing crazy or seriously dangerous, it’s a place that we let our kids roam, and love to see our animals prosper and crops grow. It’s a place where we take care of the land, because we know that without treating it right, we would be quickly out of business.

    • Janice says:

      Thanks Brenda. I look forward to reading your blog too! It seems you understand exactly what I am saying. Having spent years in a very rural area working with a seed business where our farmer customers were the faces I saw at every turn, who talked with me daily about what is happening for them, I feel I have a blend. That helps me greet things with skepticism some times that others may accept as true. For me, that is what lets me tell ag’s story in what’s my city friends understand and farmer friends usually find true.

      One point I would like to make though…. I don’t think farmers need to live in the city at all…. I do think that to tell our stories effectively, we need to understand the people we are talking to & their perspective as our talking can fall on deaf ears or worse, could be misunderstood in a detrimental way. Because farmers do feel pressure, it is a good idea to make sure the new things we are doing help us get where we want to be. I really think if more Americans knew they could hear from farmers, they would rather have conversations with you guys than read the latest best seller and take its messages in hook, line and sinker.

      Thanks again Brenda and I look forward to getting to know you better!

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