I remember visiting Washington, D.C., as a junior in high school and having people look at my group in awe when we said we were from Montana. Apparently the image "Montana" conjured was not normal teenagers in normal clothing using public transportation. They seemed disappointed to hear we used cars - not covered wagons or horses - to get to the airport.
The world is more connected now than it was then, just 16 years ago. Everyone seems to know more about people in other areas through the wonders of the internet. But even with that enhanced connection, some knowledge has slipped through the cracks. And agriculture definitely falls in that lost area.
A recent survey conducted for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy revealed 7 percent of adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. One response piece about the survey, written by George Mason University professor of law Ilya Somin and published in the Washington Post, questioned why it matters that people don't know the origins of their food.
The piece, entitled "Public ignorance, brown cows, and the origins of chocolate milk" argues there are too many things for people to keep up on and that thinking that chocolate milk comes from brown cows is far less consequential than various political ignorances.
I'm not going to say Somin is wrong on the consequences of political ignorance; that seems like an obvious truth. However, I will point out that thinking the two things are unrelated is ignorance in and of itself.
The original photo Somin included with his article was a picture of a brown bull. Since the animal did not have horns, he assumed it was a cow.
"I don't claim to have much knowledge of cows or bulls or much skill in telling them apart, and the photo snafu certainly proves that I am no expert on those subjects! Regardless, the main point of the post stands. Public ignorance about the origins of chocolate milk is not a big deal. But some other kinds of ignorance are," Somin wrote in a correction.
But if a professor at a prestigious law school can make a mistake like that, doesn't it also seem possible that, say, someone running for Congress could think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows? Or that meat or bread originate at the supermarket? Or that farmers are destroying the environment?
That is why this is an important topic. Maybe John Q. Public not knowing his jug of chocolate milk contains milk, sugar and cocoa is not a big deal. He's going to go to the store, buy his food, eat it and not think twice.
But what if he's a Congressman who eats his food and then he goes to the U.S. House, votes against the farm bill and, also, doesn't think twice. With no connection to the origins of the food in his fridge, why would he worry about agricultural legislation?
Earlier this month, I covered an event in Jamestown, N.D., in which dairy and agricultural advocates brought dairy-related activities into town so that kids (and adults) could learn about how milk, cheese, butter, ice cream and other dairy products get to the grocery store.
Events like Dairy Day help make sure the public has the opportunity to learn about food. We need that kind of consumer outreach so that the next survey shows a few less people who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. We need to use the connections we have to teach people about what we do and why it matters to their lives.
Our country relies on a safe, affordable food supply. Maintaining that food supply should be a major political and public priority. The less people know about the origins of their food, the more misconceptions they have. And misconceptions make bad policy and bad outcomes for our farms and ranches.
Schlecht lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.