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The ag-urban divide

February 8, 2010

Pop quiz: the plant material in this field is from what crop?

Though I was raised as a Chicago suburban girl, I’m no stranger to agriculture. For years I’ve lived in communities where the local public radio station gives the daily ag market report and where farm implement and seed distributors run ads on local television stations. I wrote a thesis on rural land use. I’ve worked for the USDA. I really shouldn’t be surprised by the animosity that sometimes crops up between farm and non-farm interests, but I seem to be encountering a lot more discussion of “anti-farm” attitudes here in Scottsbluff. Maybe it’s the news cycle. Maybe I’m just being more attentive. Or maybe the intensity of the discussion is related to the locale.

At a dry bean conference, one of the speakers (Roger Berry of A-FAN) warned that “extreme organizations” like the Humane Society of the United States are working to eradicate livestock agriculture. This topic was reported on twice: once in an article about the conference, and a second time in a dedicated article I can’t seem to find again.

Because the Farm And Ranch Museum is located just down the road from Scotts Bluff National Monument, it draws in some people who might not otherwise visit the museum. Recently, a museum volunteer told me about an experience with a woman who had “Sierra Club written all over her”, who came into the museum and began attacking agriculture for its environmental impact.

At a Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers conference, a speaker (Bruce Vincent, logger-turned-activist) exhorted the attendees to speak up to defend their industry. According to a Star-Herald article, Mr. Vincent distilled the problem thusly:

The real enemy is not the Humane Society of the United States and the Sierra Club. The problem is the public’s ignorance.

He’s got a very good point. How many people know where their food comes from and how it’s produced? Where can a person even get this information?

It used to be, most people knew how food was produced because they saw it happening, or participated directly in its production. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, in 1900, 60% of the population lived in rural areas. By 1950, that number had declined to 36%, and by the 2000 census, only 21% of us lived in rural areas.

Now, the majority of us who live in urban areas get our agricultural information secondhand, and it may not always be correct. (Anyone see the animated movie Barnyard? Featuring a male bovid with an udder? Shudder.)

Given the intersections between agriculture and critical public policy issues such as climate change and public health, this dearth of good information is pretty scary. There are plenty of lesson plans out there to help teach kids about agriculture, the environment, food, and health, but I doubt many teachers have time to pack one more subject into the year.

I will freely admit that I still have a lot to learn about agriculture. (Until recently, I didn’t know what a sugar beet looked like.)

How much do you know about where your food comes from? Would you get all the correct answers in this Utah State University agricultural literacy quiz? (If you know of a better online ag knowledge quiz, please let me know.)

UPDATE: Farm And Ranch Museum joined forces with the former North Platte Valley Museum to become Legacy of the Plains Museum at 2930 Old Oregon Trail in Gering. See the Legacy of the Plains Museum website for the most recent updates.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

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