When Kristen Eggerling’s ancestors homesteaded Bluestem Valley Farms in 1873, who would have thought that their descendents would spend increasing amounts of time off the farm explaining the obvious to a demographic segment that didn’t exist?
Fast-forward 138 years to a Japanese grocery counter where consumers can see photos and information on the producers of the food they buy.
That kind of direct link from retail to farm fascinated Eggerling, a Nebraska corn-, soybean- and cattle-producer when she visited Japan last summer.
A volunteer agricultural ambassador, Eggerling and her family uphold a tradition of reaching out to food consumers for decades. The Japanese trip was one of many where she and husband Todd personalize American agriculture for consumers, barbequing beef and answering questions about their farm. Whether it’s in a Japanese or East-Coast supermarket, or online, she explains crop and livestock production to the general public.
“Consumers respond well when they meet us in person, realizing that farm families eat the same foods and drink the same water that they do,” says the former sixth-grade teacher. She, her husband and parents Lyle and Alice Sittler grow no-till corn and soybeans and operate a cow-calf operation in southeast Nebraska.
Eggerling’s latest agricultural ambassadorial effort is part of CommonGround, a grassroots network of farm-wife volunteers meeting consumers in person at the grocery store and other public venues to epitomize the integrity of our food supply.
Jointly sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board (USB), the program unifies modern agriculture’s voice. It hopes to include other farm groups as it expands.
The national program is launching in five states (Iowa, Indiana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky) this year with 15 volunteer spokeswomen, says Vanessa Kummer, Colfax, ND, who leads the effort. Besides chairing USB’s Communications Committee, she raises soybeans, corn and sugar beets with her husband Paul and son Blaine.
“We hope to reach millions of consumers in our first year. By the fall of 2011, the campaign hopes to span more than 20 states, with 80-150 trained CommonGround spokeswomen.”
This grassroots effort “isn’t billboards, ad campaigns, magazine pictures and ads; it’s just me being an everyday person visiting with urban consumers,” Eggerling says.
When Eggerling visits with urban consumers concerned about food safety, she shares her family’s conservation ethic, having no-tilled for more than 30 years. She links their conservation practices to their profitability: including their terracing, filter strips and field borders; their center pivot system that quantifies how much soil moisture is usable by crop according to plant-development stage; their atmometer and underground soil blocks to fine-tune water management. “It’s made a huge difference in our yields, and we irrigate a lot less,” she says. (All but one quarter-section of their corn and beans are dryland.)
“Our switch to no-till in 1980 not only conserves soil and moisture, but reduces our equipment expense.”
Bluestem Valley Farms was awarded the Sand County Leopold Conservation Award last year for its comprehensive conservation practices, land ethic and for ‘reaching beyond its borders to educate people about agriculture.’" (See http://tinyurl.com/Eggerling.)
As a former teacher, Eggerling sees parallels between her former students’ agricultural questions and those of supermarket consumers. “For example, my students thought we put all of our cattle in a barn when it snows, and assumed that livestock are treated the way they treat their pets,” she says. Once she explained that cattle live outdoors the same way that deer, raccoons and birds do, a light went on. She explained preparations for storms in terms of windbreaks and water, extra bedding and food.
The most common questions that Eggerling encounters on her public visits are why she doesn’t farm organically or raise free-range cattle, how field corn and soybeans fit into our food system, why field corn isn’t the same as sweet corn and which farm chores fall during which times of year.
“If everyone farmed in any one particular way, we wouldn’t be able to feed the population on the available land,” she explains to consumers. However, CommonGround embraces all styles and scales of agricultural production, from conventional to organic. “I find people want to learn; they’re very interested and open-minded.
“I don’t give presentations; it’s more of an off-the-cuff conversation to understand me so the consumer can make smart food choices,” Eggerling says. “The more perspective they have, the more they can put rumors into context. I explain to them how vital Best Practices are to our income, and that we, too, eat the food we produce.”
New York State Fair attendees were fascinated with the scale of the Eggerlings’ farm (1,500 acres crop ground plus 700 acres range) and the size of their cow-calf herd (250). “They come to realize we’re just normal people like they are and that we share the same concerns they do about their food,” Eggerling says. She and her husband staffed the N.Y. Beef Council booth there last year.
“We represent people in agriculture, that land and conservation ethic,” she says. “Most consumers don’t know about routine things like soil testing, for example, to preserve the environment that we love and manage.”