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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

What do you think of when you hear the word agriculture?

Dairy Pipeline: December 2004 and January 2005

Andy Overbay
Extension Area Dairy Agent,
Southwest Virginia
(276) 223-6040

Close your eyes and envision a farmer? Where are they standing? What are they wearing? What is their ethnicity? Are they male or female? I have collected nearly 1000 responses to these and other questions as part of my work toward a PhD in Career and Technical Education at VA Tech. Let me take you back to 1995. Where are the farmers at? In 1995, Miss Andy (for those of you who don't know, my wife is the former Andy Echols of Union, WV) and I were happily milking 90 Holsteins and routinely hosting over 150 kindergarteners from Smyth County Schools each spring. One sunny May morning, children from Atkins Elementary School were to visit us. As their bus pulled into our barnyard, we could see the excited children who were to be our guests. We could also see the costume projects their teachers had worked on with their classes. Each child had a straw hat on their head and bandana tied around their neck. They had taken milk cartons and made cow bells with their names on them. It was really cute and they had worked really hard on the project. However, we met them coming off the bus, and were confronting by one little chubby fellow who preceded to look Miss Andy and I over from head to toe and ask, "Where are all the farmers at?" We were cleaned up and wearing jeans and our farm polo shirts, and frankly, the little guy didn't recognize that we were the farm owners. After just a few questions, we realized that these children expected to get off that bus and walk right on to the stage setting of "Hee Haw." We were too normal looking to fit their stereotype. While our rural heritage is important to all of us, how important is it that the public has a realistic, modern view of agriculture? The images we give to people, especially young people are very powerful tools. Do you present a modern positive view of agriculture or do you reinforce old stereotypes of farming and the people who farm?

The Survey Says... Shortly after I began working for Virginia Cooperative Extension I began to collect information from school children regarding their knowledge of farming. I selected rural elementary schools that had farmland contiguous to the school campus. I wanted to see if students noticed the farms that they rode past twice a day and could see when they played outside. The results were unsettling even though they were not surprising. I began by showing kindergarten through fifth grade classes two overhead transparencies. The first one had clipart images of different people. One was a white man, wearing bib overalls and a straw hat. He was carrying a flower pot and a hand trowel. I also included a woman talking to employees, an African American couple, a student, a man working on a computer, and (to see if fifth graders would remember their 4th grade SOLs or at least their 4th grade Virginia History) George Washington. So that they would not misunderstand the intent, when I asked each class (K-5) to identify the farmers on the screen, I pointed out that there might be more than one answer. The results were that 99.6% of the students picked out the individual wearing bibs and a straw hat. Only about 1% pointed out that any of the choices could be farmers. Interesting, less than 1% of fifth graders remembered from their 4th Grade Virginia History that George Washington was a farmer. The next set of images produced even more troubling results. I presented the children with 10 tools used in farming. These included a tractor in a field, a satellite, computer, calculator, a dump truck, a brain, an arc welder, video camera, a pencil, and a garden hoe. I figured that the tractor (especially in its setting of an open field) would be an easy vote getter and it was, but the number one vote recipient among the tools with 94% was the hoe!

What the Children Think. After they completed the survey, I visited with each class about their answers. It was fascinating to see the wheels turn as they contemplated their answers. The older children realized their judgments most quickly, but they also produced to most argumentative responses. One young lady denied vehemently that women could farm. That was just not possible. The topper came from a fifth grade boy in my own daughter's class who conceded that the African American couple "might have been farmers back when they were slaves." Yikes!!! In that vein, I close by asking the children if it is any less wrong to judge someone by what they do (or what children think they do) than it is to judge someone by their skin color, or religion, or country of origin or whether they are a man or a woman. Thus far, after collecting all these responses and visiting many school classrooms, I have determined that my data shows that even rural children have definite ideas about who farmers are and what farming is about‹and it isn't too flattering. As a general rule, children see farmers mainly as:

Caucasian, Male, Poor, Uneducated
Manual laborers

They also have definite judgments about the appearance of farmers. As one child put it, "farmers are dirty, smelly, and wear dirty clothes."

So what am I supposed to do about it? While being judged isn't any fun, knowing what these tendencies are can be harnessed. A good place to begin is to not play into those stereotypes. Be yourself and be aware that the best way to influence people is to show them that you have common ground with them. If you are asked to speak at a civic club or school, dress as your audience would. If people see you as an equal, they remember you as an equal. A future attack on you is an attack on their friend and neighbor. They are a lot less likely to stand for it.

Be influential, not a victim! The main questions of my dissertation are 1."How do 5-6 year old school children of the 21st century get a view of agriculture that is based in the 1950s?" and 2."How can they see agriculture as part of their future if they see it as part of their grandparents' past?" The answers are first, the media (TV, children's literature, parents, teachers) and second, they won't be interested in agriculture at all. Put your best foot forward. Promote not only what we do but why it is done that way and why it is important. For example, there are some folks who would like to see soy oil replace our cows' milk in this nation. The reality is that we already crush enough beans to produce 1,200,000,000 tons (yes that's billion with a "B") of soybean meal per year. If our nations pigs, chickens, and dairy animals didn't eat that waste, we would bury the entire Commonwealth of Virginia (all 26 million acres) a foot deep in SBM in less than a quarter century. The public may not understand dairy farming. They definitely won't be able to grasp the sheer scope of 1.2 billion tons of soybean meal, but they can get their arms around the idea of a foot of trash on everything they own. Promoting our industry means that we must promote ourselves; not as better than anyone else, just as normal business owners in the community. Showing respect for ourselves means that we expect the respect of others.

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