For farmers and ranchers, dealing with public opinion has been an issue for decades. Keeping our neighbors, consumers, and the public in general well informed is no easy task.
To be fair about it, most of us involved in the agricultural industry are not the best communicators. For farmers and ranchers, that generally is because heavy work schedules and tight deadlines keep them too busy to explain to critics or even questioning minds the hows and whys of what they do.
For academics and researchers involved in agriculture, it is not easy to explain a farm or ranch practice or chemical process without being extremely technical. In other words, we need to explain things so they are easily understood by the average, non-agriculture individual. Often it is like an astrophysicist trying to explain the Big Bang theory to a first grader. The more technical the topic, the more difficult it becomes to explain it in straight forward terms.
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A recent ag commentary published by Jason Ott, CEA-Ag/NR, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Nueces County, should put the topic of an uneducated public on every farmer's radar. With words of wisdom and insight, he puts the subject in focus. After all, it is difficult to blame critics who do not understand farm practices if they do not know the reasons and the necessities behind them.
Ott's commentary came in a weekly news release addressing the topic of crop protection chemicals and the need for farmers to maintain a chemical applicator's license. Particularly eye-catching is his take on many of the misconceptions the public believes about chemical use in agricultural production.
While Ott admits that on occasion questions from the public arise as the result of a problem or mistake made by a producer, far-too-often the public's unfavorable opinion about an agricultural practice results from common misconceptions.
Ott reminds us that crop protection chemicals are effective tools to manage agronomic pests and are vital to protect the economic viability of one of the largest industries in the state. But such chemicals are not to be and generally are not ever arbitrarily broadcast across a field.
As farmers in Texas know, in order to apply most crop protection chemicals, an applicator's license is required, and a prescribed number of continuing education units are needed each year for that license to be renewed and remain current. In addition, a good pest treatment prescription will use the principles of integrated pest management (IPM) and will evaluate all pest control options – biological, chemical, cultural, genetic, and mechanical.
But when a neighbor or passer-by sees a farmer applying chemicals or an aerial applicator performing a service, they often fear overuse or personal risks associated with chemical use without understanding the safeguards.
"One concern of the general public often seems to be that crop producers haphazardly apply pesticides rather than rely on a specific prescription to make pesticide applications. This is far from true, and at the cost of most of these materials, growers can only afford to be judicial users of pesticides," Ott notes.
Another misconception is unwanted drift. This is especially true in areas where the wind tends to blow regularly, as it does in parts of coastal Texas.
"There is no one technique that can minimize spray drift – farmers must consider weather conditions, the application equipment, sensitive areas downwind, and buffers. And extra precautions should be and are taken to minimize drift when sensitive areas are known to be in close proximity," he said.
Ott says a common misconception by the general public is that a completely calm day is required to minimize drift. But wind is actually needed to prevent spray droplets from hovering or being trapped in a layer of air moving horizontally creating an inversion. A breeze helps push spray droplets into the canopy to make immediate contact with the target.
"The truth is, farmers don't often have the time, the talent or the inclination to explain to the general public how things work on the farm, why they do what they need to do while maintaining good stewardship of the land," Ott added.
But he points out that a new generation of farmer is helping to change some impressions of farming and ranching and how and why agriculture does the many things producers do and the reasons they do them. He points to increasing popularity of the Peterson Brothers, whose family operates a family farm in Kansas.
Collectively they raise cattle and grow wheat and corn. The three brothers and a sister are making a name for themselves through social media. At 24, Greg is the oldest of the four siblings. The others are 21-year-old Nathan, 18-year-old Kendal, and 14-year-old Laura. Together, they make up the Peterson Band, and they make songs and music about the farming life.
By embracing social media outlets like You Tube, they are closing the chasm between agriculture and a non-farming public, bridging the communication gap with the general public and helping to spread the word about the stewardship of modern farming and ranching. Already a social media hit, they are setting a good example of how farmers and ranchers can change attitudes and win over new fans in the years ahead.
Here is a link to the Peterson Brothers YouTube site.