As a rule, I hate made up words, especially if they're created for marketing purposes. I'll give 'ag-vocating' a pass, though, because it's an easy and obvious concoction that does a good job of self-describing what is means. There are a lot of people practicing the craft; some do it consciously, they will tell you that agvocating is what they do. Others do it subconsciously. They're involved in agriculture and they love to talk about it.
Both groups try to engage the urban 98% in discussions about the art and science of farming the land and raising flocks, herds and pens. They write letters, email notes, hang out in social media chat groups. They Facebook, Twitter, Link, 'Pin', Tumble and Flickr.
So let's thank groups like the AgChat Foundation and other agvocate trainers and encouragers. Let's thank practitioners like Michele Payn-Knoper, Carrie Mess (AKA Dairy Carrie), Daren Williams (AKA The BEEFMAN), Celeste Settrini (AKA The Couture Cowgirl), Carrie Oliver of the Oliver Ranch and The Artisan Beef Institute, Sarah Schultz (nurselovesfarmer.com), Brandi Buzzard Frobose (Buzzardsbeat) and Wisconsin's Agvocates of the year, Laura Daniels and Karyn Schauf. If I missed you or your favorite, that's what the comments section is for at the bottom of this column. Please use it to recognize the agvocates you follow.
Recently, USFRA took agvocating a step ahead and turned the social concept into a movie. Farmland is an attempt to agvocate on the big screen and, with luck, reach millions of people who know nothing about where food comes from, other than their local supermarket.
If a weakness to all this work exists, though, it's there is entirely too much Friday afternoon Church time involved. Preaching to the choir does not make for many new converts. Billy Graham ventured out into the great unwashed to preach to the unconverted. Willie Sutton robbed banks "because that's where the money is." When it's time to harvest the wheat, you don't head for the corn fields. You have to seek out a target rich environment - urban dwellers whose nearest brush with farming is a potted tomato plant sitting on the deck.
When it's time to talk with all those city folk about what you're doing down on the farm, you have to go to the city. An agvocate spending time talking with people decked out in cowboy hats and boots needs to re-aim. A suggestion: Borrow Michigan State University's "Breakfast on the Farm" program.
It might have been suggested to MSU's Ag Extension, the group behind these Breakfasts, by a similar long-standing Wisconsin event promoted by the Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee. The 36th Annual Dane County Breakfast on the Farm is scheduled for Saturday, June 14, 2014 from 7:30 am – 12:00 pm at Zander’s Dairy Farm in Mt. Horeb, about 20 miles west of Madison.
Since 2009, more than 53,000 people have attended Michigan's Breakfast on the Farm events to learn about where their food comes from. Guests arrive in time for breakfast and spend the rest of the morning learning how cows are milked, petting a calf, taking wagon rides, and seeing tractors and other farm implements. Questions about farming and food production are encouraged. For about 80% of the people who have attended, it was their first or only visit to a farm in at least 20 years.
First lesson they learned: Milk doesn't come from a carton in the dairy case. Second lesson: Farming is hard work.
The farms are scattered throughout the state so people from Detroit to Grand Rapids and Battle Creek to Sault St. Marie can make an easy day trip out of it. One of the three farms featured this summer belongs to the Uphaus family near Manchester, about 20 miles southwest of Ann Arbor and a short, one hour drive from Detroit.
The farm is owned by Lyndon Uphaus and his family. They own a beef feedlot and they grow soybeans and wheat. I spent a few minutes on the phone with him. I was in my office; he was on his tractor.
Q. Breakfast on the Farm is a lot of work. Why did you decide to get involved?
A. I think it's important that people understand where their food comes from and all the work we do to make sure it's safe. Most of them are two or three generations away from the farm and all they know about their food is it's on shelves at the supermarket. We have to show them where it all starts and help them to understand how it gets to their table.
Q. You're very near some large urban centers - Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Toledo is just over an hour away. How many people are you expecting?
A. Most of the people will come from southeastern Michigan. We should get 2,500 to 3,000 for breakfast. We'll give them a guided tour. There will be booths, too, manned by agricultural businesses. We'll start serving breakfast at 9:00 and we should wrap up by 1:00. By the way, it's scheduled for September 6. Tickets are free and they'll be available after August 6.
Q. What will people will see when they visit your farm?
A. They'll see our soybeans, wheat and dairy operation. We'll have some heavy equipment, too. Some of the local dealers will bring in their tractors and combines. We'll be only the second cattle feeder on the tour which started in 2009. We feed about 950 yearlings, bringing them in from as far away as (Michigan's) upper peninsula and southern Ohio.
Q. It sounds complicated. How long does it take to plan an event like this?
A. We work with Michigan State's Cooperative Extension Service, meeting once a month to start and then more often as we get closer to the date. They'll help handle the visitors. My wife, three sisters, and our daughters, Sarah and Katy, will help, too.