I could hardly believe a simple idea for a blog post ended up with its own hashtag in a little over a week. I sent my question, "would you farm differently if a non-ag person followed you around on your farm," to Ryan Goodman who had the vision to ask several other farmers and ranchers to respond. Thanks to some amazing bloggers and enthusiastic folks on Twitter I got several answers to my question of #farmvisit.
I was about to leave the house for work when a salesman arrived. He was a non-farm salesman and moved on to the next house when I didn't buy anything. As I was bringing the cows in out of the field for their lunchtime feeding I wondered if he could see me from the road. One of the cows had developed a limp (that we later treated) and was hobbling towards the barn. Would he think I was mistreating that cow? I began to imagine him shadowing me on the farm and how I might explain how and why we work the way we do.
We do get a few unexpected visitors to the farm on occasion. I usually take them to the calf barn first to show them how we raise the smallest animals. Then I take them in the milking parlor to watch the cows being milked. The challenge when you have visitors is sometimes answering the questions they have. How much milk does a cow give? Do you use antibiotics? How do you treat your cows? When working on the farm day to day you sometimes forget what non-farmers actually know about what you do. Answering their questions gives me the opportunity to think about agriculture from their perspective and makes me think about the whys of doing something that I might take for granted.
The biggest lesson learned from these visitors is in self critiquing. What should I have done to present my farm better? How should I have answered that question? As I watch them look around on the farm there are things that inevitably stand out that I wished didn't like an unmade bed at home when you have company. There is always manure to be hauled off, calves to be bedded, and a sick animal that needs attention. I can't make those things disappear for a visitor, I can only explain what happens on a farm and how I'm working to keep our animals healthy.
Perhaps the visitors who have the biggest impression on us never actually set foot on our property. More and more people have moved into our area and drive to and from work over the road that divides our farm. Perception can be reality to some people. Their impression of what they see as they drive by may be all they see of farm life. We hope the view of the cattle in good condition and the cleanliness of the road and our facilities reflect upon the well-being of the rest of the farm.
I think most farms want to do the right thing even when no one is looking. There are many farm evaluations that can be done to assess how you are doing to prove that. The dairy cooperative we market our milk through has one called the DFA Gold Standard program. It ensures their customers that the farms the milk comes from are doing a good job in animal care, milk quality, and on environmental issues.
Would I farm differently if I worked in the shadow of a stranger? Maybe in some ways I would, but I hope the work I do on our farm is a high standard everyday. I hope every day I work is a day I can go home proud of what I have done.