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Farmers work to bridge city-rural gap

RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Many Americans have drifted away from the farm for years, creating a division between city and farm cousins.

For those in the city, their idea of farming may be outdated.

"They have this vision of what we are," Liz Doornink said. "It is really from the stories of way back ... children's storybooks of the farmer in the red barn."

The rural Baldwin, Wis., dairy farmer should know, she is a New York native who moved to farm country in seventh grade and keeps in touch with New York and New Jersey relatives.

"There is a huge disconnect," she said.

And it is not just those back East who misunderstand farming today.

"That is true, even if you get into your rural communities," added Jim Harsdorf, a Beldenville, Wis., farmer who spent 11 years as state legislator and a couple as Wisconsin agriculture secretary.

As the 1900s began, more than 90 percent of the country was involved in agriculture. Now it is closer to 2 percent.

"It is because we have used technological advancement and genetics to be really efficient," Harsdorf said, but city residents do not understand that.

Farmers frequently battle environmentalists and others who oppose common agricultural practices.

"We are certainly up against other people who don't want us to be doing what we are doing," Harsdorf said, but added that if city and rural folks work together they often can understand each other better.

At the same time, more people appear interested in their food's origins, said Tim Marema of the Center for Rural Strategies, a national organization.

"Often it shows up in oversimplified arguments about 'good' vs. 'bad' agriculture, like the squabbles over genetic modification," Marema said. "Folks want agriculture to match our romantic notions of farming."

Farming techniques are changing, but so too are public relations strategies employed by farmers, said President Paul DeBriyn of AgStar Financial Services.

"They realize they have to deal with public relations," he said about farmers, and they need to push their brand.

"We are such a 'brand' society," he said, pointing to Tiger Woods and others who have not lived up to their brands.

While at Farm Technology Days near River Falls, Wis., DeBriyn said more and more farmers realize that their jobs are more than just producing the most crops, livestock and milk they can; there is a trend of farmers making contact with consumers.

Doornick is an example of a farmer who is trying to bridge the rural-urban gap.

At Farm Technology Days, Doornick is among the leaders in teaching people who don't live on farms about modern agriculture. But her efforts are not limited to the technology show. She estimates that she reaches 5,000 to 10,000 people in talks away from her farm every year, and "a couple thousand" people visit the farm.

"When they hear all this new stuff we are doing, they say these aren't farmers," she said.

For instance, global positioning system components can drive a tractor for precise planting and other activities, something few people not in agriculture understand.

Also, crops have been genetically modified to make them resistant to weeds. While that was a controversial topic a few years ago, many have accepted the practice because it means less herbicide is used.

Some people think farmers give their dairy cows antibiotics regularly, which they fear could make milk harmful.

"You only give antibiotics if they are sick, kind of like your children," Doornick said.

When farmers explain such things, those unfamiliar with farming come away at least with a better understanding, even if they do not always agree.

Environmentalists have been among farmers' biggest critics, but Harsdorf said even that gulf can be bridged.

Professional Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin works directly with environmentalists, he said, so they are fully informed on the issues, such as operation of manure systems. The two sides worked together to produce new rules about manure handling in Wisconsin, and although not everyone was happy, things went much smoother than in other such rule-making efforts when there was no such communication.

"Is there more to be done? Absolutely," Harsdorf said. "If you wait for the point there is controversy out in the community, it seems that no one is listening."