All too often, the general public still thinks of farmers as wearing overalls and using very simple practices to grow crops when quite the opposite is true, says Rob Atchley, general manager of citrus groves for Florida and Texas for A. Duda & Sons Inc., LaBelle.
To help bridge that misperception, he called on those in agriculture to do a better job educating the public about current farming practices and how farmers are true professionals.
“Farmers, especially those who grow specialty crops, need to give the public a view of how we really farm, to show these are highly managed businesses and not a couple of guys in overalls with buckets throwing fertilizer,” he says. “They are professional people who do this for a living. They study these businesses. They grow up in these businesses, and they run them at a high level of oversight because the margins demand it. We can’t do things sloppily.”
A member of the FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program Class 1, Atchley and nine classmates traveled Florida and to California, meeting with lawmakers, regulators and others involved in agriculture during 2011-12.
The need for the industry to do a better job “telling its story” was apparent, regardless of the locale, he says.
But it took on even more importance in California, where growers face daunting regulations and growing conditions, he says.
“We need to be more proactive within our industry and show that what we do, we do well.”
The many facets of success
Atchley, who didn’t grow up on a farm, got his first taste of agriculture while working on an irrigation crew during high school.
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After graduating from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural operations management, he started working for A. Duda & Sons at 22 years old. The 37-year-old has been there ever since and has seen how the industry has evolved.
“What really impressed me then and what continues to impress me now is the number of things you have to be proficient at to be successful—the science of the plant, employment law, the business end,” he says. “There are so many different facets that go together to make a successful agribusiness.”
Schools are an obvious gateway to improving ag education, he said, citing existing programs such as Ag in the Classroom. If you can reach the students, they may take the information home to their parents, who also may improve their understanding of the industry.
But other outlets, such as civic or social groups, also provide opportunities in low-key settings to tell the public about agriculture.
“We need to be more of an advocate for our businesses, to point out how we are professionals, we follow BMPs, we do all of these things,” Atchley says. “A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t have the opportunity to see what we do on a day to day basis.”
Although some growers may shy away from talking to the public about agriculture, Atchley says, “We should be proud of what we do.”
“If people show an interest, we should make sure they have the accurate picture of what’s going on.”