Jeff Semler: Misconceptions linger for public in its knowledge of farming

May 28, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Misconceptions still linger for the general public in its knowledge of farming

Regular readers of this column know that my target audience is the general public and not the farming community.

In years past, it used to be a way of sharing information to agrarians, but as our world has changed, so has this column. For me, improving the general public’s understanding of agriculture is my No. 1 job.

Agricultural illiteracy is an issue that has plagued our industry for years. Too often, consumers are misinformed of the facts and form generalized perceptions that are more often incorrect. Researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia believe nutrition education might be one solution to changing consumer attitudes and reversing mistaken beliefs. Another way is for farmers to engage the public and the media.

These misconceptions and misunderstandings were brought to light again when I was visiting a vegetable farm in Colorado. The farmer is an energetic 30-something who, with his wife and 30 employees, raise nearly 100 acres of vegetables during harvest season.  They market directly to consumers through farmers markets, as well as some sales to grocery stores and restaurants.

During our conversation, he makes note of his Farmall “C” tractor sitting next to the fence. He goes on to say every time a news reporter visits, they want a picture of him on that tractor and wonders if he would mind donning a pair of bib overalls. He declines on both accounts — not because he is rude but because he does not wish to lend credence to an archaic stereotype.

He does still use the “C” for occasional cultivating but says they never want a picture of him in his John Deere, which is at least 55 years newer than the Farmall. He goes on to say he wears jeans and a plaid shirt every day, so why would he want to put on overalls?

His goal is let people know that he is a businessman.
This is not a hobby nor is it some nostalgic way of life — it is a business.

Business agriculture has made huge advances in productivity over the past 60 years and should be able to continue improving. For instance, in 1940, one farmer produced enough food to feed 19 people. By 1970, it had risen to 73 people. And now, one farmer produces enough food for 155 people.

Additionally, from 1970 to 2010, the world population doubled, but farmland didn’t. More and more people were basically able to live off the same amount of land.

As productivity has improved, so too have the techniques for preserving resources. For instance, farmers now grow 70 percent more corn from every pound of fertilizer than they did in 1970. And, they are doing a better job of conserving water and the soil.

So now is the time to start eating locally grown food and when you meet the farmer who feeds you, ask questions, but don’t make accusations.

 Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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