Overstory #15 - Cultivating Connections with Other Farmers
Practical experience is a key source of information on sustainable farming that can only be gained first-hand and can't be found in any book. The study of books is valuable too, but there is no substitute for seeing something in action. Many aspiring farmers feel awkward and don't know how to start to approach local old-timers, neighbors, or complete strangers whose work they have heard about or seen from a distance. Yet, it is an essential part of learning to meet other farmers in your region and get a first-hand look at their work, and hear about their experiences. These valuable relationships can be a wellspring of information, ideas, and inspiration for you, as well as result in long-term supportive friendships.
So, how does one go about approaching that person for the first time to ask to see their farm practices? To make it more comfortable, effective and enjoyable, there is a certain code of conduct that goes along with tapping into a farmer's wealth of information.
1) Do your homework in advance. Before asking a hard-working farmer to take time out from their day to share information with you, be sure you have checked the local resources that provide free information first. Extension agents, some University educators who work with farmers, and farmer advisory organizations can be excellent sources of assistance, and are being paid to help you. The World Wide Web has also become an excellent means to research farmer practices. The public library can also give you some leads, as can friends who have farming experience. Through this up-front research, you will begin to learn which farmers in your region have been successful in practicing new, innovative and sustainable techniques. Then, when you do get to visit a farmer, you won't have to take their time for basic information that is readily available elsewhere.
2) Be very respectful of a farmer's time and space. Find out if the farmer is willing to have you as visitor. While some farmers are happy to show off their activities, most farmers are also very busy, sometimes downright overwhelmed. Some are even wary of strangers invading their private gardens, or reluctant to share because they don't want to be criticized. Call the farmer, and ask if they have a couple minutes to talk about what you are interested in. Start a conversation by letting them know how familiar you are with them, such as "I've been admiring your products in the market...," or, "Word is you are the expert in..." or "You seem to have a special skill to..." Then, introduce yourself briefly. If the farmer does not have a phone, stop by briefly in person for this purpose. But don't expect them to drop what they are doing to show you around then; you should stop by first for a few minutes just to see if it would be O.K. to come back, and if so to make an appointment for a future visit.
3) Start with a small request, and be specific about what you want to see or talk about. In other words, don't ask, "Hey, can I come over and have a tour of your farm?" which can be a large, time-consuming request to fulfill. Instead say, "I see you are trying an interesting technique to control weeds. I am working on some similar problems at my place. I was wondering if sometime I could stop by for a few minutes and have a quick look at what you are doing?"
4) If the farmer is willing, make a firm appointment. Treat the appointment just as you would an appointment with any professional. Be on time, and ready to go when you arrive. Don't expect the farmer to be on time, just be ready when the farmer is ready.
Some Do's and Don't's of a Farm Visit
After you have successfully scheduled a meeting, you are ready to go for your visit! Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind during your visit:
- Arrive on time, ready to go. Ten minutes early is courteous and relieves doubt whether or not you will show up. If they are not ready yet, wait patiently until they can be with you.
- Thank them up front for being willing to see you.
- Have just a few specific things you want to ask about or see, or have a short list of questions.
- Ask for permission if you want to take photos or videos of them or their farm.
- Be brief and leave on time or early. Even if you are all having a great time, it is much better to have them wishing you would stay longer than wishing you would leave! If they see that you do in fact respect their time, they'll be glad to have you back again.
- Thank and acknowledge them at the end of your visit. Let them know how much you value their time and knowledge, and admire their work. The work of farming is endless, and this person is surrounded by it. It is nice for them to sit back for a moment and see through your eyes all that they have accomplished.
- If possible, send a short note or gift to thank them again.
Here are some things to avoid:
- Don't pry if they seem reluctant to discuss certain aspects of their operation. Remember, their farm is also their business and livelihood, and some things may be proprietary, "trade secrets" they may not be ready to share with you.
- Don't focus on or talk about yourself and your own farm while you are there. You'll get the most value if you focus on what they are doing in their situation, and try to apply it to your own later.
- Don't give unsolicited advice. You are there to learn, not to teach, and it can change the whole tone of the meeting if you start offering advice. Of course, if they ask for your opinion or help, by all means share what you do know.
- Don't ask for or expect them to be willing to give you cuttings, seeds, or other plant materials. This is very important. Their time and knowledge is their gift. If you very dearly want plant materials from them, contact them a separate time and offer to pay or trade for it.
- Don't ask to use their phone, home or bathroom. If you are not a house guest, your request to use private family space may be a burden.
- Always respect local and traditional customs in the way to dress, act and treat your hosts.
With these few guidelines in hand, hopefully you will be more comfortable approaching that neighbor or old-timer in your region to tap into some of their experience. If you still feel shy about it, remember the "start small" rule by approaching a nearby neighbor (start with one who seems most likely to be friendly!) to chat for a few minutes about their farm. Soon you'll be hooked on cultivating connections with your farming neighbors.
Also, do pass it on. If farmers have hosted you and taught you, keep the cycle going by being willing to show others the successes and failures on your farm.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #64--Homegardens
- The Overstory #49--Traditional Agroforestry Systems
- The Overstory #46--Human Health and Agroecosystems
- The Overstory #24--Sustaining Your Physical Health