Research Focus: We aim to understand how Austin area farmers and ranchers get products to market. Specifically, we will explore how farmers and restaurants communicate with each other through touch-points along the food distribution chain.
It’s hard to remember all the people we actually speak to throughout the day. And even harder to assign value to those people. How important are they in my life? All of that of course depends on how you define value.
When we set about having farmers and restaurant folk track their communications, we wanted to get at their definition of importance by having them place the people they spoke to on a board accordingly. The closer to the center they placed the person, the more important. I assumed they would define importance by level of monetary value the person contributed to their business. In this I was right, and I was also wrong. What came out was that apart from monetary gain, sometimes a person is important because of the way they make you feel.
My research partner and I conducted this activity with a farmer that we had already spent time with before named Joe.
Joe was in a bad mood that day. My research partner and I could tell from the moment we walked up he was on edge. Busy, aggravated. According to him, everyone was stupid or uneducated. It took some time before he sat down and did the planned activity with us, but eventually he did, and was very open about who he communicated with and which people he thought were awesome and which were annoying.
Joe likes to talk, and even though we spent 5 hours with him the week before listening to him rattle on, we never really saw him be vulnerable. The point of vulnerability is when a man’s true self can be seen. What we learned was, Joe is scared about his future. “This is the most unsustainable thing I could be doing. I have nothing going for me, we are all just pissing in the wind. I try not to think about it.” We were listening to a farmer that feels like he has no other options in the world except farming and doesn’t know how he could ever leave it. “I wish we could have a life. I don’t have a life. If you’re going to work all the time you got to do at least something enjoyable. At least I don’t have money going out the door.” The low pay paired with lack of expenses has kept him a prisoner to the farming world. He told us often how he loved his work, and we could see he felt some autonomy in his day to day, but love of labor has limits. “I work all day, sit on my porch, and get up the next day to work. This is all I can do now. I can hardly hardly support myself, how could I support a family and kids? That’s out of the question. I have nothing put ahead of me. My dad thinks I’m making a bad decision with what I’m doing. But he’s a knot head. I think I’ll be fine.”
The only other life he can imagine is one where he works at HEB, which is ultimately less appealing to him.
Hearing Joe talking makes me wondering if we’ve been missing something entirely. That it’s not communication with business relationships that’s important for a farmer. Maybe it’s communication with people that make them feel connected and valued as a person that they need, instead of like an outliner on society’s fringe.
“I literally don’t leave the farm except to market. I don’t really complain about it anymore. I’m better just staying here. The more I leave the more depressed it get with the world.” Joe’s energy had dropped a bit by the time we left him.
Moving forward with our research my partner and I want to look at a couple of things. First off, we are ditching an activity using images that we thought would be great, but didn’t land well with any other the participants we used it with. Secondly, we want to expand upon the activity that did work well and incorporate a new element that accounts for the amount of time our participants spend communicating with certain people. Hopefully this can help us better understand the trade offs they make throughout their day. Where do they sacrifice time from one activity to feed another? Lastly… we aren’t sure yet. It’s important for us understand the level of impact and influence these different players have on each other’s lives, but we haven’t defined the activity that will best lead to this insight yet.
And for Joe? The perceived problem of the food value chain is deeper than I first imagined. It’s not just helping farmers make money, moving food to market, convincing consumers to eat local, or even shedding light upon the value and commitment of the people working across the food chain. The problem is shifting power and human-beingness back into the system to the people that keep it afloat.