Connecting Gate to Plate Blog

National Geographic to farmers & agribusiness: be open to the public, listen more and tell your story


“The Year of Food” recently launched at Dennis Dimick is the Executive Editor, Environment for National Geographic magazine and grew up on a farm in Oregon. Michele had the chance to meet him this winter, listen to his preview of  “The Year of Food”, and ask Dennis a few questions. You can also find the beauty of Dennis’ photographic work on Flickr or Instagram or connect with him on Twitter. This is the second of two posts with his insights.


What is the greatest disconnect between farm and food?

We are an urban society now, there is little or no understanding of farming and farmers, what they do, how they live, and the huge risks they take. Now by design geographically, farms are often physically far separated from where people live, essentially worlds apart.

Do city people, for example, realize the huge multi-year and –decade investments farmers must make in equipment and land, or the upfront costs they must cover for seeds and fuel and fertilizer before they get a penny from harvest? Further, the prices farmers pay for their inputs and eventually get for their harvest are always set by others, not to mention farmers are always at the mercy of unpredictable weather.

national geographic farm food world agriculture, michele payn-knoper, feed the world, population growth

Credit: National Geographic


What practices have you seen farmers using to take better care of the environment?

Well, of course I have seen conservation tillage, strip cropping, cereal/legume crop rotation, contour cropping, and rotational grazing. I have seen farmers with methane digesters produce biogenic methane from on farm manure. It’s important for the public to understand that farmers by definition must be stewards of their land, for if they erode and abuse their soil and water in the quest for highest yield, or short term profit, they will soon be out of business because the soil they need will be worn out or eroded away.

But that said, we still have a serious soil erosion problem in the country. We have significant and chronic “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay and off the Mississippi Delta (among other places) as the result of excess nutrient runoff. Of course not all of that impact can be assigned to agricultural practices, but to deny this exists, to blame others, or to say this is an acceptable price to pay for “productivity” is short-sighted. The Green Lands, Blue Waters initiative in the upper Mississippi Basin is an example of improved land use practices specifically designed to reduce runoff pollution from farm landscapes.

If the nation truly values soil and water quality, then perhaps agricultural policy needs to reflect and incentivize that, so farmers don’t feel they are at a financial disadvantage when taking marginal and erodible lands out of production, or putting lands into conservation reserve.


You grew up on a farm. How do you see agriculture changing over the same number of years since you threw hay bales?

Cities have overtaken some of our best farmland. (Our own farm was taken over by an Interstate highway.) Farms have gotten bigger, farmers have gotten fewer, farmers have gotten older, farms have become less diversified and more specialized. Fewer young people are going into farming. Farm towns have disappeared, schools have closed, rural American landscapes have become depopulated.


What are three ways North American farmers could better tell their story?

Farmers could benefit by being more willing to be open to the public and the press. Passing laws that restrict and outlaw photography of farming operations only serves to further alienate agriculture from the people whose support they need: the people who eat. It’s probably as important today for farmers to tell their own story, willingly, as it is for them to grow their own crops or livestock. If farmers have something to hide then maybe they need to clean up their practices. Being proactive, open, and receptive to a curious public can go a long ways towards improving relations.

National Geographic, Feed the World, Population growth, jonathan foley, agricluture, farming, farmers, michele payn-knoper

Credit: National Geographic

Companies that produce seeds and crop technology would benefit by listening more, and not just assuming products will be accepted by the public. Just because a seed technology benefits the profit sheet doesn’t mean the public will accept it.

Farmers would do well to do a better job of not just marketing their products but marketing themselves, telling their own story. This could be on-farm tour days, or open house picnic type affairs. It could mean (ongoing) bringing in school tours, being willing to show the public what they do and how they do it. Maybe it means being willing to diversify a bit so that some of what you do is specifically designed as a way to connect with the public through farm market sales, or specific brand identity. Some will say I can’t afford to do that, I’d say you can’t afford not to open up and become a self-advocate.



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