The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance hosted their seventh Food Dialogues in Chicago yesterday. The topic of discussion: transparency.  What does it mean? How are farmers transparent? And what is it that consumers want to know about their food? The whole discussion is posted here.

The panelists included:

  • Ellie Krieger [MODERATOR], RD, host of Food Network’s Healthy Appetite, and New York Times best-selling cookbook author
  • Bo Stone, Farmer, P & S Farms, Rowland, NC
  • Gene Kahn, Former President and CEO of Cascadian Farms
  • Brad Nelson, Marriott International Corporate Chef and Vice President of Culinary
  • Kathleen Merrigan, Former Deputy Secretary Dept. of Agriculture
  • David Fikes, Food Marketing Institute Vice President, Consumer/Community Affairs, Communications
  • Lynn Martz, farmer, Martz Family Farm, Maple Park, Ill.
  • Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State University agriculture economist and author, “Food Police”
  • Jim Riddle, Organic Research Grants Coordinator, The Ceres Trust, and owner, Blue Fruit Farm
  • Wil Gilmer, farmer, Gilmer Dairy Farms, Sulligent, AL

Here is my summary of the discussion pulled from the tweets I tweeted yesterday (Shocking right? I was on twitter.)

  • Chef Brad Nelson: more story of food & less science speak.
  • Jayson Lusk: people what to know common sense things about food.
  • Ellie Krieger: we want our labels to be simple but reflect complex issues.
  • Bo Stone tells farmer’s story of continuous improvement.
  • Gene Kahn: will transparency trade-off be excessive burden to farmers & ranchers?
  • Kathleen Merrigan: it isn’t a burden if it is voluntary.
  • Chef Brad Nelson: people want choices when & where they want them.
  • Chef Brad Nelson: if I connect a menu item to a farm, I’ve added a premium.
  • Dave Fikes: Consumers also share in responsibility of learning about food production.
  • Jayson Lusk: why is food different? We aren’t having cell phone dialogues.
  • Gene Kahn: what food claims are relevant to the folks not eating in white table establishments?
  • Chef Brad Nelson: it’s about getting closer to the source. Back to know your farmer.
  • Lynn Martz: source identification & traceability is already happening on the farm.
  • Chef Brad Nelson: sustainable environment. What about sustainable businesses, communities, etc?
  • Audience question: we talk choice, but end up conversing in terms of bad & good, black & white, mandatory & voluntary, small & big.
  • Can agree w/ Jim Riddle here. Need more investment in ag research.
  • Audience member speaks from media: I’m not your PR person, but it is my responsibility to learn the black, white & shades of gray.
  • Wil Gilmer encouraging farmers & ranchers to tell our stories using many venues.
  • Bo Stone: Being a farmer is not what I do, it is who I am.

Amen to that Bo Stone.

The day ended with dinner attended by food blogger Louisa Chu. Holly Spangler also attended and wrote her thoughts here.

I drove home late last night and stayed up well after pulling in the drive considering our efforts to have a farm / food conversation. One question Louisa had asked stuck with me.  Do “consumers” or non-farmers ever take the initiative to contact us for farm tours or to ask questions? None of us at the table could give a definitive yes.

We all had stories of inviting people to our farms via adopt-a-classroom and adopt-a-legislator programs, farm visit days, and teacher workshops. We talked about our efforts to tell our farm stories via social media, and I have been contacted twice this way by inquiring minds. Beyond that nothing.

It reminds me of the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” We are so set on sharing our farm stories, on creating opportunities for the general public to ask questions and to glean more information from the people raising the food. Yet, rarely are these efforts reciprocated.

I have witnessed several instances now on facebook where a farmer has attempted to join a conversation to provide that farmer/rancher voice and has been blocked because his/her opinions and information were different than those posting. And I will vouch for these farmers. They did not join the conversations with guns blazing, but with the intent to share information . . . civilly.

Blocked.

This behavior solidifies what we know about human nature. We flock to those who believe what we believe, who can validate what we think and feel, who agree with us, because who wants to be in a room where everyone is pointing at you.

Brad Nelson, corporate chef for Marriott International, said it best yesterday when he stated (and I paraphrase), ‘People want choices and information, but they want it on their own terms.’

So, folks what are the terms? How much more transparent can we be? I’m not asking every naysayer to agree with what we farm, how we farm, or why we farm. That’s not the point of a conversation.

I am asking for some give and take. You say you want information. What do you want to know? Because farmers are listening and willing to converse. We just need someone to talk with.