It’s an interesting time to be a farmer. For so long, most were content to do their job, produce quality food and farm products, and plan for next season. Little thought was given to what the consumers were thinking. Apparently, everyone just assumed everything was fine on the farm.
Now, farmers are realizing that cultivating relationships is as important as cultivating the crops.
With each generation fewer people are involved in farming. Neighbors may move in next door who have never lived in a rural area let alone next to a farm. And relationships with people just down the road can help or hurt a farm.
Meghan Hauser understands this. She co-owns Table Rock Farm in Castile, New York. Each spring, she hand-delivers 100 newsletters about her family’s dairy farm to her neighbors.
Her goal is to make sure that what they do on the farm is clearly explained to the people in her community. She is also prepared to discuss opinions that may be different from hers.
Newsletter packed with information
Her newsletter is full of information about the farm. It highlights farm projects, a reminder that they will be on the roads for spring work, introduces neighbors to new employees that they have hired and stresses the care that goes into making appropriate decisions about the applications of manure and pesticides. The newsletter also features a corn coupon. Neighbors can bring it back for free, fresh ears of sweet corn later in the summer. This coupon alone has proven to be very popular.
Such relationship building is important for Hauser and her family, who also include their contact information with the newsletter. They encourage neighbors to write or call with questions.
Valuing the relationship
They believe having a pre-established relationship provides a basis for communication and perhaps an easier resolution of problems. This spring, Hauser says she had a call from a neighbor who was concerned about land clearing they were doing on the edge of a field. Though she said you never know how this type of conversation will go, she was glad the neighbor reached out to her first instead of a public official or the media.
When she called the neighbor back and explained why they were clearing the land and that the project had gone through the proper regulatory groups, the call went from a negative “I’m calling the authorities on you,” to the neighbor better understanding how they approach their land work as stewards of the environment.
Kendra Lamb, whose family has 6,000 dairy cows at three locations in western New York, admits there was some apprehension from her husband Matt when she started producing a newsletter. He worried that they would receive some negative feedback, but that hasn’t been their experience. Working with the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, they produced two newsletters in 2013 and another this past spring. Some people emailed and others called the farm office to give positive feedback, especially about the new location where they are farming in Wilson.
Their milk may have even drawn some new customers. One person noticed a change since her family began managing the location and they asked how they could buy her products.
The Lambs cover a broad variety of topics. The first newsletter was an introduction. They said “hi” to their neighbors, talked about the farm and featured a story called “What is that smell and why?” Other articles have focused on their farm’s methane digester, a growing season recap and showcasing the great care they provide for their animals.
Connecting with community
The dairy farms also are active in their communities in many ways by sponsoring little league teams, having a float in the town parade, submitting press releases to the local paper about employee achievements, maintaining a list of people to call in advance of manure spreading and keeping up the farmstead’s appearance.
The benefits of having good relationships range from having better educated consumers, as well as people who will support your business and may show empathy during the tough times. Just as important, they are people who are ultimately voters and could be lobbying in support of legislation that may be for or against agriculture. In the end, neighbors can have a lot to say about how a farmer runs their family business.
It may be scary to reach out in these ways, but it can be worth it for both you and your neighbors.