In 1790, everyone knew eggs came from chickens. Today?

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Once upon a time long, long ago, almost everyone living in the United States of America was involved in agriculture. Yup. True. The U.S. Census of 1790 reported a total population of 3,929,326. Nine of every 10 people were involved in farming. I imagine everyone over the age of 5 knew the difference between a cow and a buffalo and that eggs come from chickens.

By the 1880 U.S. Census, the population had exploded to 50,150,783. More than 4 million farms dotted the countryside. It's estimated that just shy of 23 million people were involved in agriculture – 49% of the nation. 

Enter the first great agricultural hoax – the Thomas Edison Rice Machine. Yeah, THAT Thomas Edison. In 1878, readers of the New York Graphic opened their April 1 edition to the stunning headline: “A Food Creator. Edison Invents a Machine that will Feed the Human Race.” Reporter William Croffut wrote that Edison's machine was capable of transforming dirt into cereal and water into wine thus ending world hunger. Edison said the food of the future would be “oranges and cabbages that have never felt the wind and rain, and pork and partridges that have never been alive.”

At the end of the column Croffut revealed he dreamed the whole story while napping. April Fools! But that didn't keep the story from being picked up in newspapers across the nation.  Many people called Edison directly to ask where the machine could be purchased. I think the public by and large could be excused for their gullibility. After all, the previous year Edison invented the phonograph as well as the carbon transmitter, which increased the volume and clarity of telephones. Wasn't it at least plausible the story was true? Later the New York Graphic published an addendum to Croffut's story condemning “the careless American habit of hasty reading.”

Flash forward almost eight decades to 1957, when the BBC current affairs show Panorama's April 1 edition (notice a theme developing here?) reported on the spaghetti harvest from the trees of the Ticino region of southern Switzerland. 

In somber tones, the BBC's Richard Dimbleby told watchers:

“Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it's simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it's resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop… Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depredations have caused much concern in the past.“

What?

After the report Dimbleby signed off with, “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April."

Following the broadcast the public crushed the BBC switchboard wanting to know more about spaghetti trees and where they could be purchased.

Yikes.

Nowadays I'd wager a steaming bowl of spaghetti (and win) that the public knows so little about agriculture there are dangerous disconnects relating to trust and food safety.

Just how illiterate has the U.S. public become when it comes to all things agriculture?  Shockingly so. Here's a few examples:

  • A pair of 2011 surveys from the U.S. Farmers and Rancher's Alliances showed “lack of access to information, as well as no interest or passion for the topic, have divided consumer opinion on the direction of agriculture.” Among the facts revealed were these  nuggets: 72% of consumers know nothing or very little about farming or ranching, and 70% say purchase decisions are affected by how food is grown and raised.
  • A poll from Michigan State University in 2017 indicated 35% of survey participants rarely look into where their food comes from and 13% never do.
  •  A 2017 online survey from the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy found french fries and potato chips are the nation's most popular “vegetables,” orange juice is the nation's most popular “fruit,” and 16 million people think chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

You might be reading this thinking well that's cute but so what

Start with the fact that just 1.4 percent of the U.S labor force are farmers and ranchers. In 1790, it was almost everyone. Today it's almost no one. Adding 19.7 million full and part-time ag and food sector jobs of all kinds pushes those involved in agriculture to 10.3% of the U.S. labor force. Long story short, people today have got to go out of their way to learn about agriculture.

And it's not hard to imagine a lack of knowledge about where our food comes from has sowed seeds of mistrust

The Center for Food Integrity found in a 2018 study that just 25% of respondents “strongly agree” they trust the food system, down from 37% the previous year.

Nor does it help with public trust that Big Agriculture is constantly defending itself for putting profits ahead of the law.

I often wonder if the lack of honest and civil discourse and relative dislike between rural (mostly Republican) and urban (mostly Democrat) people partially has its roots in agricultural illiteracy.  I think at one time in our history agriculture served as a common bond, point of mutual interest, and jumping off place for discussions of all kinds. Over the last several decades that has been lost.

Lawmakers – some of whom by and large know little about agriculture – are currently in listening sessions across the country in preparation for writing the next Farm Bill. 

Along with the usual topics of concern – commodity revenue supports, research, rural development, energy, food programs, conservation, farm credit, trade and the Supplemental Food Assistance Program – Congress needs to take a deep dive on agricultural education and offer up new innovative solutions to inform the public about the food they eat. 

Re-establishing public trust in agriculture is job one. We must break down the walls between farmer and non-farmer as well as rural folk and urban folk that have become a detriment to understanding agriculture as well as one another as human beings. Yes it will take ideological shifts of view to rid the prevailing “us versus them” mentality. 

For the good of our nation it must be done.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.