HARWOOD, N.D. - With farm fields surrounding us in rural Cass County I was seated at table five at the fifth annual Banquet in a Field at Peterson Farms Seed this past week. The only person I knew at the table was Randy Melvin, a farmer from the Buffalo, N.D., area. I was there as a volunteer with CommonGround North Dakota, the host of the event and an organization I've been a part of since 2012.
My role that evening was to help welcome guests - all of whom were from the Fargo area, urbanites by North Dakota standards. They parked their cars and boarded a trailer, pulled by a tractor driven by Dennis, a Peterson Farms Seed employee. I stood on the trailer and briefly shared about my background in agriculture, the volunteers and farmers in attendance and details of the event, including the 13 crop plots, the appetizers made with ingredients from those crops, and the dinner menu from chefs and recipe creators Tony and Sarah Nasello. Finally, I let the guests know there would be a farmer seated at their table who was eager to answer their questions.
As a voice in agriculture, I sometimes wonder if agriculture advocacy efforts such as Banquet in a Field are moving the needle. Do non-ag consumers trust farmers and the ag industry more than they used to when it comes to how their food is raised? Do people understand the need for technology and its benefits in agriculture?
My concerns were put to rest by the strangers who left as new acquaintances and the connections I made at Table Five. Unlike in my past years' observations, table five didn't need any warming up to start. They had questions about farming for Randy and didn't hold back.
Before we had even started on our first course of chilled sweet corn gazpacho, Randy answered questions about a TV commercial one guest had seen recently about soybean cyst nematode. He simply, yet thoroughly, explained the above- and below-ground insects in his farm fields. The questions and conversations continued while we enjoyed our watermelon fruit cooler, North Dakota beef tenderloin with roasted red pepper pesto, grilled potato salad with bacon herb dressing, mixed pickle plate and chopped salad. It wasn't small talk.
The conversation was gutsy and gritty at times. Land prices. Equipment costs. Drone and UAV usage. GMO seeds. When asked about spraying crops, Randy shared about the scouting that took place in a field the previous week before deciding to spray. He told them he mixed 6.4 oz. of chemical with 5 gal. of water to cover an acre, or the size of a football field. He also shared about the cost.
As the sun set, we were still talking as we ate our chocolate mousse, whipped cream and sunflower brittle. I snapped a picture, then a friend took a picture of our table. The next morning, I posted those pictures on Instagram. My husband saw the pictures and said, "You look so content and happy at your Banquet in a Field table. Your whole table looks engaged." My husband knows me best.
Content and happy, indeed. I'm only one voice in agriculture who sat at that table of people who aren't connected to agriculture but are genuinely interested in learning about modern farming practices, direct from a farmer. A lot of issues, debates and myths could be mitigated with more conversations around a dinner table, sharing in a meal with an open mind.
Agriculture advocacy efforts - whether it's a one-on-one conversation or speaking from a podium in front of a crowd - are always worth it.