Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Education, education, education

Ryan Kregger
Touchet, Wash.

It’s been a busy winter for WAWG. We just returned from Florida after attending the Commodity Classic and a National Association of Wheat Growers’ meeting. Days before that, we were in Olympia, working on your behalf to save our agricultural tax exemptions and other wheat industry priorities. After each trip to urban America, I’ve come to realize the vital need for agriculture to unite on public relations and educating the masses. Those who support labeling genetically engineered grocery store foods, for example, are getting their information from somewhere. They are definitely not getting it from us. Some are claiming that passing I-522 will save our wheat export markets. That claim is flat out wrong. I-522 has nothing to do with export markets. And by the way, Japan imports and eats genetically engineered papayas.

Another example of misinformation is the public’s perception of family farms. In 2011, WAWG conducted a statewide survey of the Washington public. The survey showed that an overwhelming majority of people like farmers, but they aren’t sure why. They also don’t understand that family farmers are more than those they meet at a farmers market. I’m a family farm, and so are my neighbors. In fact, more than 90 percent of all farms in America are family owned and operated. Many here in Washington are multigenerational farms with more than 100 years on the land.

My friend and fellow farmer, Brad Issak of Coulee City, said we seem to have a disconnect with the under-40 crowd. People over 40 seem to understand, in some way, that agriculture is food. People under 40 have less of a connection. Many in this category also don’t understand what farming is other than organic and small production farming. There are many basic messages that Washington farming and ranching groups can stand behind, such as redefining the term “family farm.” I am pleased to tell you that your grain industry leadership has taken the first step in funding a major education campaign in conjunction with our friends from the Washington Potato Commission. Together, a subcommittee and staff from both groups have designed an efficient and effective campaign targeting the public. The goal is simple: educate the public about the food grown in Washington.

Food is the bridge between our farms and the consumer. As they learn about our farms, hopefully they will understand better the reasons why we use certain tools and practices. They will also understand better the economic impact the food and farm industry has on our state.

This united approach will be different than what we are used to. It will require a different look and feel. It will speak a different language and will require us to listen to consumers. Even though most of our wheat is exported, the decisions made by our state consumers through elections and ballot initiatives will affect every inch of our farms. Some call it “preserving our social license to farm.” I would add that it is also a new step in preserving trust within our marketplace. In this case, it is a marketplace that ensures our freedom to farm using practices that provide safe, healthy and affordable food while being good stewards of the land.

This spring you will begin seeing the fruits of collaboration and hard work between WAWG, the Washington Potato Commission and our PR partners. The campaign, Washington Grown, will be introduced under the coalition named Washington Farmers & Ranchers. We encourage other agricultural groups to join us in this necessary education front. As this multiyear project grows, we look forward to meeting consumers, listening to their perspectives and explaining more about how their food is grown.