We are delighted that Michelle Miller, The Farm Babe, is featuring on the panel for The Top Innovators. She is not only a farmer herself but also a fantastic key note speaker and a passionate advocate for agriculture and celebrating innovation in the sector. We caught up with her to find out more about her background as well as exactly why she wanted to be involved with The Top Innovators.
Let’s introduce you to all the innovative people visiting The Top Innovators, can you share a little more about your background? How did The Farm Babe come about?
I grew up around farming as a kid, while my parents weren’t farmers themselves some of my friends parents were, and I would spend time working on their farms. I was a member of 4H, a program for students who might look to pursue a career in farming, and every career aptitude test I took said I should pursue a career in agriculture. But, being a classic teenager, I decided to go against what my teachers were telling me and I did a degree in fashion instead.
I moved to Los Angeles away from the small town I’d grown up in, I wanted to see what the big city had to offer and I ended up with a career in fashion working for Gucci in Beverly Hills. Very much the opposite of what my teachers told me I should do.
After quite a few years in LA however I did end up coming back to farming because I was dating a farmer in Iowa. It was at this time that I started The Farm Babe. I had come from LA and Chicago, and then moved to a town of 1,000 people in a farm in the middle of nowhere. I quickly realised there was a disconnect. People didn’t know where their food was coming from, they didn’t understand farming and there was a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to farming – whether that’s GMOs or pesticides, factory farming, hormones etc. I started The Farm Babe because I wanted to give science and farming a bigger voice to explain exactly how it all works and shout about the incredible work that they (and we) as farmers do.
What does farming do to sell itself and educate the wider community?
The science communications space in general isn’t very good at this. I started the farm babe because I wanted to speak out about farmers. To explain that there are clever marketers behind these food companies and the messaging isn’t always 100% accurate. For example chicken breasts with a sticker on saying ‘Hormone Free’ – well hormones haven’t been legally allowed to be used in poultry farming in the US since the 1950s but it is still a sales technique used by marketers because we, as a population, are relatively unaware of the agriculture legislation.
My thoughts are that if you want to know the truth about a market then talk to people who do it for a living. Try to avoid just reading an article from a vegan, animal rights activist from New York City who has never stepped on a farm, try and get the other side of the conversation too. Ask your questions directly to farmers for a true representation on how products get to your table and avoid being sucked into the sexy headlines.
Agriculture is such an important industry and it affects literally everyone, but we don’t do a good job to shape the message or endorse the work we do. Science communication in general doesn’t do a lot to make farming cool or exciting. Sadly, science doesn’t sell papers, fear does.
Can you tell us a little more about your farming background?
So I used to live on, work at and run a farm with cattle, sheep and row crops. Late last year I changed my situation, moving to Florida to a 17 acre plot with the aim of starting from scratch. I will eventually be raising goats, sheep, chickens etc but on a much smaller scale farm compared to the very large scale, commercial operation I just came from.
What are the challenges facing you and other farmers on a day-to-day basis on the ground?
Market price fluctuation. The cost to operate a larger scale farm is continuing to rise, while the market price of goods doesn’t always follow. This fluctuation means sometimes profits can be really good, and sometimes they can be terrible. This is a huge challenge for farmers. A lot of this is politically driven in things like the trade war where a lot of farmers lost a lot of money for a long time. We’re starting to see changes but cost is always a huge pressure on farming.
The second biggest challenge is definitely to do with public perception of farming and agriculture, and that’s where my passion lies in trying to influence.
The final one would be weather, which is of course, a huge unknown and is increasingly becoming even tougher to predict. We had tornadoes in Iowa, hailstorms, a huge amount of rain then sudden droughts. There was always something being thrown at us by the weather. Consequently, you’ll find that farmers must be very resilient and positive people to continue making a go at it.
What are some of the technologies you’ve seen really change the game over the last 5 years or so?
I think drones are a huge advancement for the sector – spraying crops as well as providing aerial observation to scout farmer’s fields and let them know if they’re having issues or problems and to help resolve some of that. Interestingly it’s the same drone technology from farming as in football stadiums to help disinfect stadiums after the game so it’s a really great cross-industry technology.
From personal experience, robots that milk cows has been a huge lifestyle changer. Cattle remote monitoring through FitBit type devices has also been amazing. They track around 140 different data points, monitoring exactly how they are acting, how much milk they are producing etc so the vet is then able to pick up issues much quicker and isolate that cow quickly to avoid diseases/issues spreading across the farm.
The best bit is that a lot of that technology enables the cows, or whatever the animal being farmed is, to live a better quality of life too.
Yes absolutely, animal welfare is as the front of every farmers minds. Animal welfare experts will be farmers, vets, scientists but unfortunately a lot of the story being sold in the papers is from animal rights activists who are passionate but not necessarily industry experts, so their sources are often far less credible as they are often driving an agenda.
Ultimately the better we treat the animals the better they will treat us. The happier, the healthier they are, the better product they will produce. It’s in our interest as farmers to treat them well.
So historically agriculture can be quick to innovate, but often the mass-adoption can be slower. How can businesses support farmers to speed up mass-adoption?
There are farmers that want to be really innovative, and entrepreneurs that have excellent ideas. I think by creating platforms that are able to pair them up we speed up the early adopter process which speeds up the mass adoption process.
There is an opportunity for more companies to speak directly with farmers to ask what exactly it is that they need. If they’ve developed a solution that fixes a farmer’s problem, then of course adoption will roll out much faster.
The main pressure though will always come down to cost, all farmers know that technology gets cheaper over time, so if they buy the equipment in 5 years the cost will be much lower. If companies can explore sponsorship deals, or if governments can provide subsidies or grants this will also incentivise farmers.
There are so many challenges facing agriculture right now, from the food crisis to the population issues and the climate. What do you think will be key to addressing some of these challenges and safeguarding our future?
I think that public perception is a really big part of this, how agriculture is viewed by the public influences political and legal changes. You would never realise how much of this is consumer driven. I am obviously passionate about this but I truly believe that the more awareness on how agriculture works then the better. The world of agriculture isn’t how people imagine it – your grandpa’s farm with a big red barn and a windmill in the background, and that’s a good thing. Technology improves every aspect of our lives and agriculture is no exception, but how do we get that message out there in a more ‘cool’ mainstream way.
I think a lot of the pressure goes to the big consumer facing brands that we know and understand, for instance I worked with Burger King last year to challenge some of the marketing they were pushing out that put farmers in a bad light. In response to a better understanding the Burger King team listened and they reacted to this, switching up a lot of their marketing messages. Most recently in France Burger King publicly bought loads of potatoes, paying full price for them, but gave them away for free at drive throughs to actively support farmers during Covid.
And finally what made you want to be a part of the panel for The Top Innovators?
The main reason is that I find agricultural innovation just so cool. I was so delighted to see a platform bringing it together on a global stage and celebrating the people behind it. It’s amazing! And sharing these innovations across countries is so important and valuable. I’m so excited to be connecting with these individuals, learning about their innovations and sharing that back to my network too.
Wow Michelle and the other panelists with your nomination now. It’s a fantastic opportunity to celebrate innovation in your network but also perhaps to just put your idea or business in front of some of the most influential professionals in the sector.