DALLAS – Lauren Arbogast didn’t grow up on a farm or as a part of the agriculture industry. She was a self-described “city girl” for many years. But that title soon changed after she married into a third-generation beef, poultry and crop farming family in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. From that point on she had to get a crash course in the life of a farmer.
Arbogast holds a bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences with a master’s degree in Education and currently teaches elementary special education. After becoming part of a farming family, she combined her work as a teacher and a representative of the ag industry. Her work for agriculture within education has earned her state and national awards, including the Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year, as well as the National Agriculture in the Classroom/USDA Teaching Agriculture Excellence Award.
She shares stories about her life as a farmer and a mother of future farmers on her Paint the Town Ag blog. At the Meat Conference in Dallas held March 3-5, Arbogast spoke about the need for transparency in the ag industry alongside Missouri turkey farmer Don Steen, in a session titled, “Food Transparency Today: A Dialogue with the Poultry Industry.”
“This is our job. This is our livelihood. This is what we’re passionate about,” she said. “The risk of no transparency is worse than the risk of not being transparent.”
Arbogast shared additional insights with MEAT+POULTRY in a follow-up interview:
MEAT+POULTRY: Before you became a member of a farming family, what were your impressions about farming and agriculture?
Lauren Arbogast: Other than my 5-year-old self-complaining about the smell of poultry barns on the way to a family camping trip, my view of agriculture was simply apathetic growing up in the city. Farming — providing food and fiber for others — was never on my radar. I was in 4-H in middle school to ride and show horses; this aspect of agriculture never evolved for me into the larger picture of agriculture.
M+P: What was one of the biggest misconceptions you had about farming before you joined the community and learned more?
Arbogast: The biggest misconception I had about farming as a profession and lifestyle coming into a farm was around the time off (or lack thereof!). I quickly realized that farming always comes first — on my first date with Brian he pulled into his parent’s driveway in a tractor and told me that he needed to do something immediately, and that our date would have to wait. He also added that if I wanted to talk, I needed to get into the tractor! Farming is something that never turns off, never has a time limit, and so it’s up to farm families to build business models that are unique to the family and support their personal version of a work-life balance.
M+P: When you talk to people now, how do people react when they hear you’re a family farmer?
Arbogast: The biggest quizzical reaction to hearing I’m a farmer is usually around my attire. Ninety-nine percent of the people that I meet to talk about agriculture are off the farm, and so I’m not in “farm clothes.” I’ve come to understand that most people have conjured up what a “farmer” should look like from their perspective, and it usually doesn’t align with what they see in front of them.
M+P: How do you use your position as a teacher as a way to educate the next generation about farming and agriculture?
Arbogast: I brought agriculture into the classroom early on in my education career as a preschool special education teacher. It’s in my nature to make lessons hands-on and engaging, and our curriculum afforded many places to bring in experiences around agriculture. It soon grew into cross grade-level experiences, school experiences and then district-level experiences. For me, it was a natural extension of my passion around agriculture and education. These school level experiences still occur in multiple schools around our area today, each with its own unique presentation. My goal with these experiences was never to make it about me, but to engage school communities and have them take ownership of the experience and create their own community connections. It is rewarding to see!
M+P: When and why did you first start blogging about farming?
Arbogast: I started PaintTheTownAg [blog] in 2013 as a place to drop my agriculture lessons for others to see. It’s evolved over the years to more clearly encompass the diversity of our life on the farm, including stories around the family, life challenges, and everyday joys.
M+P: What is the most important thing that everyday Americans need to learn about farming and the agriculture industry?
Arbogast: I think that everyone should have an appreciation for agriculture. That doesn’t mean that people need to learn everything about the field, but that they recognize and respect the occupation as a crucial part of life. We can all have appreciation for other occupations that contribute to society in both big and small ways!
M+P: Why is transparency so important when it comes to agriculture?
Arbogast: Transparency is simply a word that means we’re open to sharing. For our farm, that means answering questions in a respectful manner and clearly explaining the what, how, and why of what we do on a daily basis. I also believe that transparency is multi-dimensional and should encompass who we (as farmers) are outside of the farm. Simply put, it makes us human, and it paves the way for connections.
M+P: How can the industry improve in its efforts to become more transparent?
Arbogast: Each business or industry faces obstacles in transparency. Personally, I think that keys to improvement for agriculture include being proactive in sharing information and creating experiences that invite the general public to experience the industry in some way.