In the United States, the average consumer is trained to shop for the best deal. Since Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, organic farmers have needed to educate consumers about the personal health and environmental benefits of organic growing methods to help them justify the higher cost of organic produce. Now, as climate-smart farming practices are spreading, it may be necessary to educate consumers to help them justify their purchases.
Farmers across the U.S. recently shared if, how and why they educate their clientele about climate change. Their responses varied widely.
Julie Rawson, of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts, does outreach to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members and the farm’s 1,000-person information list about carbon sequestration and climate change.
“I live with a low-grade anxiety about climate change and see it pretty regularly manifested in the weather with its impacts on the farm,” she said. “As a farmer I believe I have an important but minuscule part in changing the climate trajectory with our farming practices.”
Rawson educates her clientele by regularly talking about practices that support good carbon management on the farm or garden. She encourages people to try these climate-smart growing practices on their own piece of land.
“When our food quality took an upward leap last year I ‘blamed it’ on carbon sequestering techniques that we are learning to use on our farm,” Rawson explained. “The customers noted an improvement in quality and taste, so it was easy to make that connection.”
In Wisconsin, Renee Randall of Willow Ridge Organic Farm, saw four decades of careful land stewardship decimated by a tornado in 2015. She has also experienced growing seasons devastated by hail, hard and pounding rains, cold and “record-breaking” spring flooding. Conceivably, her customers would also have experienced some of these weather extremes and made the connection to climate change, but Randall said trying to extend that reality to the customer is much more difficult.
The CSA concept is meant to connect consumers with farmers by giving them access to the farm and an experience of nature through being a shareholder. Hoophouse growing, hydroponics and aquaponics are methods that shield crops from climate change in order to make food consistently available in all conditions. Although it is a definite bonus to have access to farm fresh food in any weather, Randall said the constant availability of fresh produce takes attention away from the effects of extreme weather events on field growing, where weather is a definite factor. Although Randall’s personal experience would seem to be the perfect springboard for climate education, she found it difficult to attribute it to climate change because there was so much debate about why the weather was off.
“People thought of weather problems as excuses that should have a quick fix,” Randall said. “I had more than one weather disaster, and with each I tried to show the effect extreme weather and changing weather patterns have on farming. No matter how beautifully I wrote about the fallout after the tornado, my customers mostly wanted to know when they could expect a delivery.”
Marko Colby and Hanako Myers, of Midori Farm in Quilcene, Washington, do not intentionally educate customers about climate change. When the subject of crazy weather patterns does come up, he usually just says it’s climate chaos. Colby doesn’t feel like it’s his role to educate his customers and doesn’t want to burn bridges with customers who consider climate change a political, rather than a scientific, issue.
“They buy from us because we grow high-quality produce, not to hear my opinions about what I presume is going on in the world. We really make it a point to be nonpolitical, nonconfrontational, in all of our outward farm marketing interactions,” he shared. “We want to bring folks into the fold of enjoying fresh local produce regardless of their world view or political beliefs. Once they realize how good local organic vegetables are, they may dig deeper and try to understand humans’ role in producing greenhouse gases.”
At Stamford Museum and Nature Center (SMNC), a working farm in Stamford, Connecticut, education director Lisa Monachelli said climate change education for agriculture is an important part of their work. SMNC offers a program for schools and discussion about climate change also arises regularly in the nature center’s other programs, most notably maple syruping.
“We talk with the visitors about how southern Connecticut’s maple trees and resulting syrup production are affected by climate change,” Monachelli said. “To make the best decisions for our environment, all of us need connection with the natural world, as well as an understanding of the science behind its processes and how human impact can affect those processes. Naturally, product yield is important in farming and the causes of yield variability are part of the educational process.”
Big Picture Beef, in Hardwick, Massachusetts, has built an entire business model around producing livestock production methods that fix the water cycle and sequesters carbon. “Our very name was chosen because we want people to understand it isn’t just about taste, it’s also about the larger issues,” said Lynne Pledger, co-owner of Big Picture Beef.
“We feel the climate/food connector is critical to explain to consumers so they can make informed choices,” said Ridge Shinn, co-owner and CEO of Big Picture Beef. “The correct choices help mitigate climate/carbon issues and reinvigorate the local economy.”
Although Shinn has been raising grass-fed beef for 15 years and has a 40-plus-year history with both dairy and beef cattle, he and Pledger founded Big Picture Beef just a year ago and haven’t yet developed the point-of-sale materials they will use to help educate consumers. Currently, they are educating consumers with public speaking engagements and a highly informative website that includes information about the connection between rotational grazing on and bigger yields of crops.
Whether offering education about climate change and climate-smart farming practices will benefit your business or hinder it is something only you can figure out, based on your market. No matter what you decide, “The deliciousness of good food is one thing that brings people from all walks of life together,” Colby said. “That is more important now than ever.”