This past month Knickers, a 7-year-old Holstein steer from Australia, took the internet by storm. Amazement, bewilderment, and raging debates ensued over whether “Big Cow” was a hoax or a freak of nature (standing 6’4” at his shoulder, Knickers is, in fact, a big steer). In the same week that we as humans managed to land a functioning robot on Mars, The New York Times science correspondent was compelled to pen an entire column on basic cow facts. As beguiling this all may be, the buzz generated by that behemoth bovine opened my mind to an invaluable and easily overlooked opportunity.
For those of us who work closely with agriculture, people’s lack of familiarity with our food system can be disheartening, or we can take a different perspective. The delightful banter that ensued from Knickers’ fifteen minutes of fame reminded me to meet folks’ curiosity about our food with open arms, as it can lead us down a path of mutual discovery. What ag-nerd wouldn’t have fun talking about the thing we’re most passionate about in the world?
I frequently stumble into sharing what humble knowledge I have about food and farming with people of all walks of life. Earlier this month I visited with an after-school science club for girls. While my plan was to teach them how to design a survey and analyze data, I spent most of my time satisfying the girls’ seemingly endless, if morbid, curiosity about how chickens and pigs are slaughtered. While I narrowly avoided a detour into the literal birds and the bees (“So could all the eggs we get turn into chickens?”), we had a great time. At the end of the day I vowed to brush up on my knowledge of animal husbandry, and the girls did eventually get to make a bar graph and learn the word ‘parsimonious.’
Just a couple weeks later, and the same week that Knickers was in internet-ascendance, I sat in on a graphic design class whose final project is to design campaigns that promote the great Kentucky foods available on campus. The students had a lot of exciting ideas for promoting our local food efforts, but not a lot of experience with actual food. I had to gently remind them to be sure the images they used are of foods that can actually be grown here. From there we veered into a rambling question and answer session that led to the revelation that avocados and coffee are not grown in Kentucky, but a whole host of other fruits and vegetables are (I was duly impressed with how many types of produce I can name off the top of my head). We also discussed in the complexities of storing winter vegetables and why you shouldn’t wash sweet potatoes if you plan on keeping them through the winter. Once again, not where I was expecting a conversation about graphic design to go, but I was happy to be along for the ride.
It’s easy to take what we know for granted, and even easier to miss opportunities to share our passions and help others connect with them. As farming and farmers continue to diminish in their prevalence in the social and economic structure as a society, those of us who care about the future of agriculture would do well to take every opportunity to can to share the wonder we find in the goings-on of our food system. If it takes a Big Steer to make a big difference in someone’s interest in where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and the people and landscapes that are impacted along the way, so be it! And, if we’re being honest… Knickers really is one heck of a beast.