The young TV reporter pulled into the driveway of Lauren Arbogast’s farmhouse, rolled down the window, and just stared at Arbogast for several awkward seconds.
Hesitantly, the reporter asked of the woman dressed in blue jeans and nice shirt, “Are you Lauren?”
Arbogast replied that, yes, she was.
“I have to tell you,” the reporter said. “You’re not what I expected.” The reporter went on to say that she envisioned someone older, with gray hair, and a pitchfork.
“The older and the gray hair are going to come, and a pitchfork has its place on a farm,” Arbogast replied pleasantly. “But it’s not who we are. We’re just like you. I happen to love fashion and getting dressed up every now and again. Just because farming is a part of what I do and a part of my story doesn’t change who I am as a person.”
That was a light-bulb moment for the reporter.
Isn’t that the kind of agvocate we want in the industry, someone who can help people reach their light-bulb moment?
Thankfully, we have that.
In November, Arbogast was selected as one of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s five Faces of Farming ambassadors. Her role will be to act as an agvocate who can travel the country and help bridge the gap between farmers and the public and to break down some of the trust issues that has emerged in recent years.
Arbogast, who farms about 1,800 acres in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is joined in her agvocacy by Jeremy Brown of Texas, Katie Roth of Wisconsin, and Emily Buck and Lauren Schwab, both of Ohio.
“It’s the chance to bring together real people who represent real farms and to take them out into the public’s eye, whether with media interviews or panels or events or where we can that’s not in ag’s typical footprint.”
Many in ag may not be familiar with the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. Drawing tens of thousands of people each March, that event is on the USFRA’s radar as one to target for agvocacy. Arbogast’s first assignment — considering the seriousness of the issues ahead, perhaps “mission” is the better term — is the South Beach Wine & Food Festival next month in Florida. The festival caters to foodies and other bloggers.
And yes, she has chosen to accept the mission. Eagerly. Joined by other USFRA staffers, Arbogast will be the on-site farmer, striving to build relationships with the public and, at the very least, initiate vital conversations about agriculture.
Getting to this point
Arbogast grew up a city girl but entered the ag industry more than a decade ago when she met and married her husband, Brian, who operates a family farm with his brother and father. Though started as a turkey farm generations ago, it has phased out that component and now has five houses of broiler chickens, a cow-calf herd, and grows corn as well as wheat, rye, or barley as cover crops.
“From Day 1, I was asking my husband and his family no less than 800 questions a day: Why do you do this, and why do you do that, and what do you do if this happens?,” Arbogast said. “I had to come into it completely at ground level, and yet as a curious person and a lifelong learner, I didn’t just take my husband’s word for it or my father-in-law’s word for it. … I start seeking out other learning opportunities, whether it was courses online or other voices in the industry or at conferences.
“It was through that that kind of shaped my view that everyone is welcome at the agriculture table,” she said.
Despite all of her questions — or perhaps, because of them — Arbogast was a natural talking about agriculture. While working as a preschool special ed teacher, she brought a lot of ag lessons into the classroom.
“It got to the point where I had all of these ideas and things I was doing in my classroom, not as an ag teacher but as just a teacher, and that was when I decided that I needed a space to put these on,” she said.
In 2013, the mother of two began sharing her insights on her blog, Paint The Town Ag.
Her blog has evolved especially toward discussions with other moms, and that kind of understanding of her audience has helped her to shape her writing.
“When I’m talking, it’s not farming, farming, farming, farming. It’s life. This is how we do life in our little space of rural America,” she said.
Her agvocacy led her to enter and complete the elite Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results program (also known as VALOR), a two-year leadership development initiative for adults in agriculture who want to develop their communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills. Additionally, participants broaden their knowledge of global and local agriculture and learn to better advocate for agriculture (Arbogast’s class visited Vietnam).
After that, both Virginia Farm Bureau and Farm Credit of the Virginias independently encouraged her to apply to be a part of the USFRA’s Faces of Farming.
Her selection was announced in November.
Virginia is Arbogast’s home base, so to speak — it’s where she’s gone to the bulk of her conferences and speaking engagements. But in the same way that the USFRA wants to step outside of its comfort zone to reach a new audience, Arbogast is happy to connect beyond Virginia’s borders.
“I’m excited that it’s a national program and that I’ll get to reach out to regions that I don’t normally travel to,” she said. “It’s going to be a chance for good conversations with people I haven’t met yet. There are going to be some strange questions; there are going to be some strong opinions.”
She knows that she’s going to meet moms who are inundated with labels in the grocery aisle or chat with more young people who think farming is all pitchforks and straw hats.
“There’s just so many questions surrounding food and the marketing process. I’m excited to have those conversations and to build those relationships,” she said.
The Farmers and Ranchers Alliance strove to understand the passions of each of the program’s “faces” so as to better help pair them with the events at which they would be most effective. This is the third class of Faces of Farming, so while it continues to grow and spread awareness, there is clarity in its drive, and its efforts are more streamlined.
This year’s Faces of Farming theme is being a “smart farm,” incorporating science and technology to help build a better and more sustainable version of today’s farms.
The USFRA is “very responsive to what consumers are talking about, what consumers are doing, and what the hot topics are,” Arbogast said.