This week marks the 43rd annual National Agriculture Week, a celebration of agriculture’s contributions to the lives of everyday Americans. Today, more than ever, people are making connections between the food on their plates and the farm it came from, wanting to know more about how it was raised and what that means for their families, the environment and the economy.
According to 2015 research by the Center for Food Integrity, 70 percent of U.S. consumers are concerned about the rising cost of food; 62 percent are concerned about food safety; 53 percent are concerned about having enough food to feed the U.S.; and 47 percent are concerned about the humane treatment of farm animals.
What do South Dakotans care about when it comes to food and farming?
In an effort to facilitate genuine connections between South Dakotans and the farmers who grow their food, the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (SDSRPC) launched the Hungry for Truth initiative a little over a year ago. As part of the group’s goals to quantify the opinions of South Dakotans, SDSRPC leaders contracted with an independent global research organization, Aimpoint Research, to determine what concerns South Dakotans most about food and farming.
What Aimpoint found was enlightening. According to research conducted last spring, when thinking about agriculture, 47 percent of South Dakotans rank healthy food as most important; 21 percent say low-cost food is most important to them; 17 percent were most concerned about protection of the environment; and 10 percent place the most value on animal welfare.
When thinking about the food they eat and the things that concern them the most, 45 percent of South Dakotans cited use of pesticides and chemicals; 22 percent said use of antibiotics and hormones; and 18 percent said use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Overall, the concerns of South Dakotans seem on par with national concerns. Knowing this, we want to be there for South Dakotans to answer our neighbors’ questions about farming,” said Marc Reiner, farmer from Tripp and SDSRPC chairman. “That’s precisely why the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council launched Hungry for Truth last year: To open up conversations about food and farming and, we hope, answer the questions our state’s residents have about where their food comes from.”
The Hungry for Truth initiative is to have open and honest conversations between farmers and fellow South Dakotans about food and farming.
Hungry for Truth launched in January 2015 and immediately began connecting with South Dakotans through events, social media and advertising.
“A little more than a year into the effort, the questions and resulting conversations have been extremely enlightening,” Reiner said. Several of the farmers behind Hungry for Truth cited their most memorable conversations.
The cost of organic foods
For Jerry Schmitz, Vermillion farmer and South Dakota Soybean Association president, a conversation with a young mother is one of his most memorable. Schmitz said the woman wanted to feed her kids organic food because she’d heard it was healthier, but that it was too expensive for her to afford. She asked Schmitz how she can make sure her kids are getting the healthiest food possible.
“A young mother approached me with this question, and I explained that all foods in our grocery stores, no matter the growing practice, are safe and healthy,” Schmitz said. “Organic really refers to the way a product is grown, not a product’s health or nutritional value. Whether food is raised organically or conventionally, they both offer the same nutritional value.” According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, organic and conventionally raised foods are equally nutritious.
GMOs – OMG?
According to John Horter, Andover farmer and South Dakota Soybean Association treasurer, everyone is buzzing about GMOs. He said that because most people don’t know exactly what biotechnology is, they are concerned about the safety of GMO foods and crops.
“Biotechnology is simply a more precise way of breeding crops. They are bred for desirable traits like resistance to insects or disease that help farmers like me produce crops with fewer inputs, like pesticides,” said Horter. “As far as their safety, we’ve been growing GMO crops for more than 20 years and not one health issue has ever been reported. On average, these crops go through 13 years of testing by the FDA, USDA and EPA before they are approved for farming. As a father and a fifth-generation farmer, knowing these facts makes me confident that what I’m growing is safe for me and my family.”
Back to the way things were
Schmitz has heard the call, especially from young people, to return to the way things used to be in farming: a small operation, no pesticides or big machinery, with a diversity of livestock and crops. Though this sounds idyllic, he explained that the technology farmers use today makes them more efficient and environmentally friendly than in the past.
“Our ancestors used a plow and cultivators to control weeds that rob moisture and nutrients from crops because that was their only option,” Schmitz said. “Today, science and technology offer farmers lots of different options to choose from, and it’s up to the farmer to choose the best practices based on the soil characteristics of each field they farm. One technology that’s had a huge impact on how I farm is GPS. GPS technology has done more than help give directions around town. Today, I use GPS to map fields into garden-sized plots for soil sampling and fertilization so that each small area receives the exact prescription of nutrients the plants require.”
In 2016, Hungry for Truth will continue the goal of connecting South Dakotans to the farm. Look for Hungry for Truth at the Sioux Empire Fair in August and the Great Downtown Pumpkin Festival in Rapid City this fall, or even on the big screen, with farm trivia before movies at your local theater.
“Year one was about creating awareness of the initiative,” said Schmitz. “We talked to so many South Dakotans. During year two, we’ll use what we heard about what is most important to the people of our state when it comes to food and farming, and dive even deeper into the issues. The great thing about Hungry for Truth is that, as farmers, we get to learn new things as well.”