Lauren Arbogast is the perfect example to counter the phrase “you have to grow up in Ag to be good at it.”
“I grew up in the city in Newport News,” said Lauren, now living in Rockingham County. “If you would have asked me about agriculture and farming, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about it. It was after college in Harrisonburg and marrying a local farmer that I was exposed to Ag.” Lauren obtained an undergraduate degree in health sciences and a master’s degree in education, and spent seven years teaching. At the same time, she was learning about agriculture from the best possible source: the farm.
“My husband Brian would attest that I asked no fewer than 800 questions a day to get up to speed and better understand what we do on our farm,” Lauren jokes. And although Lauren says that her perspective is different from that of her husband or her in-laws, her input is valued on the farm. “My father-in-law will often ask me, ‘if we do it this way, how do you think that will be perceived?’ Or ‘if this is going on, what do you think about it?’”
Before Lauren came into the picture, her husband’s grandfather raised free-range turkeys and some beef cattle. Between the 1980s and the 1990s, the turkeys were brought inside, and at one point, there were 12 turkey houses on the farm. In 2004, Brian and his brother, Brent, raised fewer turkeys and were at a crossroads when it came to operating the farm. “They wanted to figure out how they would continue to make the farm work,” said Lauren. “They needed to figure it out or get out. At that point, they decided to get out of raising turkeys and convert one turkey house to a chicken house and build four new chicken houses. They also expanded the beef herd.”
Today, Brian and Brent are the primary farm operators, but their father, Mark, is still involved. The family oversees a commercial beef herd of 450 Angus and Angus cross cows. “We use a lot of Charolais bulls which gives us a lot of smoke-colored calves,” said Lauren. “We raise the calves to about 500 pounds, and background our own calves to about 800 or 900 pounds between November and April before we sell them for finishing.” Lauren says that data from feed yards and slaughterhouses indicates that the crossbred smoke calves have consistently good feed conversion numbers along with desirable marbling and cuts.
As an educator, Lauren is interested in the public perception of how food is produced. “When I interact with consumers, whether it’s in the grocery store aisle or sitting next to them on a plane, I see myself in them 10 years ago,” she said. “I was the one who had absolutely no clue about what actually happens on a farm for food or fiber production. When consumers ask questions of someone who grew up in agriculture that seem silly or off-base, part of me says ‘I was once that person.’ It has given me a different perspective.”
Lauren believes that transparency is critical in agriculture, and that it’s important to show consumers that whether they prefer to purchase meats and vegetables from a local farmers’ market or from a grocery store, the farmers behind those products have all put the same amount of care and concern into getting those products to the consumer. “Especially on larger farms, the more we can show that we know what happens on our farms day in and day out, that we show the same care and compassion for the animals and the land they’re on that smaller farmers do,” she said. “I don’t ever want to pit big farm versus small farm. I’m for all agriculture, and whatever the consumer chooses to eat. I just ask that they have some working knowledge of how it was produced.”
The recent rise of fear-based marketing is a problem, and while Lauren wishes that it wasn’t an issue, she realizes that it will always be present. “For a long time, agriculture has been reactive to consumers rather than proactive,” she said. “It’s starting to take a turn. We’re now saying ‘this is what we do and this is why we do it.’ But I don’t think we’re completely there yet. I would love to see more farmers and ranchers in all steps of production show what they do and give an accurate portrayal of what’s going on.”
Lauren believes that social media plays an important role in helping consumers understand what happens on farms from day to day. “The more we are able to show what’s happening on the farm, even if it means a picture of spraying a crop or a calf being born or chickens being picked up for harvest — it’s the reality,” she said. “As long as we have respectful dialogue with those who comment on a post, it’s a win-win for all involved.”
A recent educational outreach effort sponsored by U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) Food Dialogues provided an opportunity for Lauren to use her education background and communication skills. “I was encouraged by Virginia Farm Bureau to apply for the 2017 class of Faces of Farming and Ranching,” said Lauren. “I was going to say no thank you, then I received a call offering to sponsor me.”
In late August, Lauren learned that she was one of the eight finalists. “It was an honor,” she said. “What could I do to promote USFRA and agriculture? I decided to do a series called ‘Celebrate Agtober’ during the month for my blog ‘Paint the Town Ag.’ It’s been a great chance to partner with other organizations and a chance for my readers to get to know me better. Part of the effort also involved helping people understand what USFRA was doing, and what I could do in the next year. Its been fun to have something extra on my blog.” In addition to her blog, Lauren uses Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to spread positive messages about agriculture. This past November, Lauren was named one of the winners and will represent USFRA’s Faces of Farming.
Lauren and Brian are active in the Rockingham County Farm Bureau, Virginia State Farm Bureau and are also involved with Rockingham County’s young farmer FFA alumni organization. Lauren facilitated a consumer panel at the Virginia State Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in November.
“It was a chance to engage consumers and producers in a discussion about consumers’ perceptions,” said Lauren, describing her experience. “Whether it’s catch phrases, labels or just a chance for the farming community to understand what consumers see when they’re headed down the aisle at the grocery store.”
Lauren believes that the more people in agriculture can hear straight from consumers and understand why they make the food choices they make, the better connected they’ll be with agriculture. “Conversations in random places often present the best opportunities to share the positive message of Ag,” she said. “The battle may be won one relationship at a time.”
To view Lauren’s Faces of Farming and Ranching video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=7q2kmEUPNsU .