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The Farm to Fork Dinner was held at the Meadow Barn near Harrisburg, S.D., and hosted by Colton, S.D., farmer Jeff Thompson. (Michelle Rook/AgweekTV Anchor)

Farm to Fork changing consumer perceptions about food and farming

HARRISBURG, S.D. — In its third year, the Hungry for Truth Farm to Fork Dinners are changing consumer perceptions and building trust in their food supply and the farmers that produce it. This year's event was held June 14. It allowed farmers and consumers to share a meal and a conversation about food and farming.

The dinners are part of the Hungry for Truth consumer initiative driven by South Dakota soybean farmers. Jerry Schmitz, president of the South Dakota Soybean Association, says the event is changing attitudes. "We learn from one another, so it's not only sharing the information with consumers, but we can hear what their interests, their concerns are," he says.

During these dinners, farmers hope to connect with consumers on a personal level and share common values. "Really when you think about food, it's something that we base our entire lives around and we all want to feel safe in using that food, so we need to communicate back and forth about how we do that," Schmitz says.

Kaylee Koch is a Sioux Falls mom who writes a parenting blog called Apple of My Ivy. This was her third year attending the Farm to Fork Dinner and says she's learned a lot from her conversations with farmers, and feels better about the food choices she makes for her family. "I think it's so fun as a consumer to talk directly to the farmer that produces all of our food," she says.

Koch sat beside Alcester, S.D., pork producer Steve Rommereim and asked him questions about his use of antibiotics and hormones. "I want to know all about how he farms, how he treats his pigs, what kinds of things he does, where he sells his produce and his pigs," she says.

Rommereim shared the heritage of his family farm with Koch and talked about the steps he takes to produce a safe and healthy pork product. "We had a great conversation starting at what I do, all the way up through production and harvest and wholesaling and retailing and then getting it on to her plate," he says.

Staci Perry is a food blogger from Brookings, S.D., who also feels like the Hungry for Truth initiative and Farm to Fork events are resonating with consumers. "I feel like the questions are becoming more in depth," she says. "People are daring to ask the questions that maybe they weren't feeling like they could before. They're sitting at the table having a meal with farmers just like we would be sitting in our home and you're being able to ask them the questions. Undoubtedly their perception is changing."

Perry also said she is more informed to make food purchasing decisions for her family. "Some of the things I've learned is that you don't have to have the labels on to know where it came from or that it's safe," Plus, she now recognizes some of the false advertising and marketing being used by food companies that labels chicken or pork as "all natural" or "hormone free." "There is some that you can't give the hormones to," Perry says. "So, when the packaging is saying hormone free, it's possible that it's not even legal to have hormones in it."

In addition to Sioux Falls, S.D., consumers, the Farm to Fork Dinner also included state legislators and Minnehaha County Commissioners like Jeff Barth. He says with the current growth in livestock production around Sioux Falls, it's important to have candid conversations with both farmers and consumers through events like the Farm to Fork Dinner. "We need to talk about it and we need to be honest with each other and not make promises we can't keep, but at the same time we need to educate the public because there's so much ignorance about modern agriculture," Barth says.

Schmitz says some of the common questions they get from Sioux Falls consumers still relate to pesticide and GMO use in crop production. "We let them know about the training that we have to have for pesticides, that GMOs go through a very lengthy process before they can reach the market. And there's never been a study which shows that GMOs are unsafe."

The dinner was held at the Meadow Barn near Harrisburg due to the weather. It was hosted by Colton, S.D., farmer Jeff Thompson, who has had the dinner at his farm in the past. "We've had a lot of good comments about people enjoying the event and the conversations that we're having and yeah, it's making a difference."

So, he hopes consumers leave with more confidence in him and the food supply. "I want them to know they can trust us ... we're eating the same food that they are," he says.