I know, I know. You hate the wheat tour. All crop tours, really. You have a long list of complaints about them. I know, because I went on the Wheat Quality Council's winter wheat tour last week and through a host of subtweets, Facebook comments and emails, you told me.
But I had a great time. We always do. Very few people regret going on a crop tour. Most of the people who kvetch about them online probably wouldn't regret going on one either. Because here's a truth I've learned about crop tours, and well, life.
Crop tours are worthwhile and educational experiences. Facebook, not so much. Physically meeting people within the agricultural industry matters. Venting on Twitter does not. The wheat tour is an intense and valuable human experience that is good for the industry. Social media often is not.
I'm not saying there aren't kernels of truth behind each gripe and insult. But, as is common on social media platforms, people are often lazy with their logic and thoughtless with their words.
People say the wheat tour tanks the markets and manipulates prices. The truth is the wheat tour is very unlikely to crash or permanently affect a commodity market, simply because the tour rarely reveals anything shockingly unknown to the industry.
In fact, one of the benefits of the wheat tour is how transparent it is, as Wheat Quality Council executive vice president Dave Green is quick to point out. "Private companies in the grain industry devote a lot of resources to finding out what's going on in the field during the season," he said. "The people who don't get that information are the farmers. So we put everything we've got out in the open -- the formulas we use, our routes, the numbers we end up with. It's a service that's more beneficial to the farmers than private companies."
People say the wheat tour is not that accurate. It is true that one doesn't become a professional crop scout overnight. People sample in the headlands. They miscount. They don't take enough samples. They measure too early in the season. Sure, all that happens. But history doesn't quite support this complaint.
The wheat tour often gets pretty darn close to USDA's final estimates, for what they are worth: https://www.dtn.com/…
The truth is no one can know a state's exact wheat production, down to the kernel, each year. But the wheat tour does a decent job with its estimations.
And, perhaps more importantly, that isn't the sole purpose of the wheat tour. Twice a year, the Wheat Quality Council brings together a cross section of the industry to spend three intense days getting to know each other and the crop they all share as a common interest. They learn about the crop's biology, management and end uses. They count tillers or kernels, identify disease and insects, tour mills, drink a lot of beer and make friends.
I shared a car one day with a cat-loving, urban-dwelling vegetarian trade group representative and a dog-loving, vegetable-hating farm boy who rarely traveled outside rural Kansas. They had a great time together; they genuinely enjoyed each other's company. The tour breeds trust between these partners in the wheat industry and reminds everyone of the literal roots of what they do, from bakers and millers to grain marketers and industry lobbyists. And perhaps most importantly, the tour brings an understanding of the complex, messy physical realities of growing a crop into distant city offices in Kansas City, Chicago, D.C. and beyond.
Farmers complain all the time about how little the public understands what they do. With the generational distancing of urban populations from their food source, the common lament goes, people know nothing of how crops are bred, raised and processed.
Well guess what the wheat tour is? That's right -- a twice annual effort to educate people, many of them urban dwellers long removed from agricultural production, in how a crop is bred, raised and processed.
People say the wheat tour is trespassing. This may be the only legitimate reason to get into a huff over a crop tour -- that headstrong American instinct to embrace privacy and protect property rights. But here's the reality: Farmers find wheat tour folks in their field all the time during the tour. Yet it's very, very rare for wheat tour scouts to get kicked out of the field. Out of the nearly 500 fields the tour visited last week, it didn't happen once. When pressed, Green actually has trouble recalling the last time it did.
Here's how it usually goes (this exact scene played out three times for me on this wheat tour alone): A farmer pulls up in his pick-up to a field, where three or four people are scattered, clutching yardsticks and counting tillers or heads. The farmers asks what the heck is going on. The scouts slog back out of the field, shake hands with the farmer, introduce themselves and -- hold your breath, folks -- everyone starts to talk.
Wheat tour participants pepper the farmer with questions about the field, the crop, the weather and his experience of raising wheat from seed to grain this year and many years past. The farmer is equal parts bemused and flattered that people have traveled hundreds of miles from around the country to spend three long days exploring the crop he has grown for most of his life, through fat years and lean years and this year. He answers their questions. Wheat tour participants listen and learn. Many, many minutes later (sometimes too many, if you're on your third day of frigid, drenched pants and wet socks, but I digress), both parties get back in their cars and drive away.
Oh, yes, I'm sure that if it was YOU, angry social media ranter, you'd give those wheat tour idiots a real piece of your mind.
Or would you?
Green actually visited a wheat farmer who publically criticized the tour on Twitter this year. The grower had noticed that some of the tour's posted routes were missing a wheat-heavy section of Kansas and groused about it in a tweet. So the tour organizers re-routed some cars, and Green pulled up to that very farmer's field.
Did fireworks ensue?
"Nicest guy in the world and very happy that we stopped," Green recalled. "And he agreed with our estimate."
For me, that sums up the wheat tour, and most of life, in a nutshell. Even those who might express hostility or criticism against the tour online are usually loathe to abuse its participants in person.
Why? Because people matter. Tweets do not. Experiences, like the tour, that bring people together from all walks of life are deeply important to society. Twitter and Facebook usually are not. Most people working in the agricultural industry are interesting, worthwhile and good. Most of social media is not.
So let's remember that, as the rush and frustration and adrenaline of planting season surrounds us -- with only our smartphones for distraction.
The internet and its many platforms for human "connection" are fraught with unreality -- people are not who they seem, and they often say what they don't know or don't mean. When in doubt, pick up a phone, pick a place to meet and do communication the real way. Maybe you'll learn something.
At the very least, whatever happens, it will be real.
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org and please spell check your angry emails.
Follow or subtweet her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee
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