Young children are often introduced to farming through storybooks and songs depicting animals and jolly farmers clad in overalls driving tiny tractors across small fields. While these stories and songs are a great way to teach children what noises animals make, they don’t accurately depict how farms work in the real world. Today’s farms are run by families of hard-working men and women who produce the safe nutritious food we eat every day.
In the U.S., farmers represent less than 2 percent of the population, making it difficult for them to personally interact with consumers (70 percent of whom admit to knowing very little about farming). Increasing transparency in modern food production is important to help bridge the gap between farmers and consumers. MSU Extension’s Breakfast on the Farm (BOTF) program is doing just that.
“Breakfast on the Farm is a premier educational event for Michigan agriculture that provides the nonfarming public a unique opportunity to see the inner workings of a modern farm,” said Ron Bates, director of agriculture and agribusiness programming for MSU Extension. “It helps residents understand how farm families sustainably care for their land and their livelihood, and helps visitors better appreciate the oversight and compliance that farmers must follow to produce safe, wholesome affordable food for residents of Michigan, the U.S. and the world.”
These on-farm events showcase how farmers take care of their animals, protect the environment and produce nutritious food. The idea started simply, when MSU Extension dairy educator Faith Cullens made a regular stop at a dairy farm in mid-Michigan.
“When I started with MSU Extension in 2008, I asked local dairy producers what their needs were,” Cullens said. “Tony and Patti Jandernoa of Dutch Meadows Farm, in Fowler, Michigan, said what they really needed was for someone to tell people how their food is produced, in an effort to combat misperceptions about farming.”
Cullens had recently moved to Michigan from Wisconsin where one of her friends hosted a county dairy breakfast and thought an on-farm breakfast with educational stations might be a good fit. She pitched the idea to the Jandernoas who quickly agreed to offer up their farm for the event. The Jandernoas were concerned that people might not want to drive all the way to Fowler just to tour a dairy farm.
“Our goal was to get 300 to 500 people at the first event,” Cullens said. “The night before the first breakfast, the farm got 7 inches of rain – we thought no one would show. To our surprise, almost 1,500 people showed up.”
During the inaugural BOTF, other farmers expressed interest in hosting similar events, sparking the creation of this wildly popular program. Since 2009, 38 Michigan farm families have hosted breakfasts, opening their doors and offering unique educational opportunities to more than 85,000 visitors.
“When our farm hosted BOTF, an elementary school boy wrote, ‘thank you for hosting, I learned more in two hours than I did in two months at school,’” dairy farmer Hank Choate said.
Choate, the 2016 MSU Department of Animal Science Dairy Farmer of the Year, is the owner of Choate’s Belly Acres in Liberty, Michigan, where nearly 3,000 people attended a BOTF in June 2012. He also serves on the statewide advisory committee and often volunteers at BOTF events.
“As someone who has worked at many BOTF events, it is rewarding as I explain to guests how and why we care for the animals the way we do and their reply is ‘that just makes common sense,’ you know you are accomplishing some of your goals,” Choate said.
The logistics of parking, hosting and feeding between 1,000 and 3,000 people in less than four hours can be daunting, but MSU Extension educator Mary Dunckel and MSU Extension BOTF coordinator Ashley Kuschel assist in making the day successful.
“Host farms work with a local planning committee composed of individuals from the agriculture industry and friends or neighbors interested in helping,” Kuschel said. “A lot of hard work and planning goes into putting on an event, and each host farm puts in the effort to make sure their event is a successful one. Hundreds of people volunteer to make sure everything from registration to exiting the parking lot runs smoothly.”
BOTF visitor Terry Fedewa of Byron Center, Michigan, attended a recent event in Marne with her family. They were impressed with the ability to accommodate and park a great number of cars in a short period of time, on the farm.
“My daughter-in-law was very surprised at how many people were out there—hundreds—but the traffic flow was good as far as getting the cars in with lots of people directing traffic to where you could park,” Fedewa said.
Once vehicles are parked, visitors find their way to a hearty breakfast featuring Michigan-grown products. A self-guided tour of the farm follows, which may include hayrides as well as tours of milking parlors, barns or processing facilities, depending on the type of farm.
“All BOTF events include a farm-cooked breakfast followed by a self-guided tour of the farm,” Dunckel said. “Past events have been held on dairy, beef, potato, apple and field crop farms. The events are free to the public thanks to generous support from local and statewide sponsors.”
Two of the program’s several statewide sponsors, Michigan Farm Bureau and GreenStone Farm Credit Services, have worked with BOTF since its inception. These entities serve all types of Michigan farms and value the consumer educational opportunity the program offers Michigan’s agriculture industry.
“In today’s world, connecting the value of modern farming and the role agriculture plays in Michigan to the nonfarm public continues to be increasingly important as more and more individuals are becoming disconnected from their food source,” Dave Armstrong, GreenStone president and CEO said. “Breakfast on the Farm is bridging this gap. In addition, with the demand for those with a degree in an agricultural program trending upward, these events offer a unique chance to introduce youth to a world outside of their norm, and to help educate future generations.”
Michigan Farm Bureau looks at BOTF as a way to demystify what happens on farms, according to Tonia Ritter, manager of the Promotion and Education Department at Farm Bureau.
“Farm families, who share values with their communities, have an opportunity to be transparent with the public about their farms in a fun, family-oriented way and then have a conversation about what they do on their farms,” she said. Research tells us that we need to listen and build trust with consumers and then we can have great conversations about food and farming over shared values.”
Exit polls conducted by MSU Department of Animal Science professor Ted Ferris show that a visit to the farm helps improve impressions.
“To the statement, ‘My general impression about modern dairy farming has improved as a result of my visit today,’ first-time visitors showed the greatest improvement in their impressions with 92 percent either agreeing or strongly agreeing with this statement,” Ferris said. “Impressions also improved for those with a number of prior visits. This may be a result of the educational format providing them a more in-depth educational experience on a farm.”
This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at email@example.com or call 517-355-0123.