Close up image of the old hands of a Karoo farmer checking the quality of his Merino wool sheep's wool.

I could not believe a conversation I overhead the other day. And I was so surprised by the topic that I asked a group of women who raise sheep (shepherdesses), and they, too, have heard something similar. Before I start to clear up the misunderstanding, first let me say that there are many misconceptions about farming and agriculture.

According to American Farm Bureau, the average American is three generations removed from the farm, and less than 2% of the population is from a farm or ranch family nationwide. This disconnect creates uncertainty about where food comes from, how important agriculture is to the economy, and why research is important to maintain this industry.

Agriculture provides more than just food. Agriculture provides materials to build houses, fiber for clothing and energy, too. In addition to the consumables just mentioned, agriculture provides open space for scenic views and habitat for wildlife, and contributes positively to the environment. Some farming practices are being looked to for sequestering carbon that is being attributed to the changing climate.

I was curious to see what the internet had to say about common myths regarding agriculture, and I was surprised with what turned up! While the industry is still predominately male, more women, especially those under the age of 35, are entering as farmers and are quite successful. Agriculture and farming are not dying. Unfortunately, our population of farmers is getting older. However, they want to see the land they and most likely their families have worked for generations remain in production for generations to come. There are many facets to the agriculture industry. There are support services such as machinery dealerships along with feed, seed and fertilizer consultants, just to mention a few, all seeking to provide quality products to keep the farm operation profitable. Many of today’s young farmers are college-educated and may not have come from a farm, but thrive working along with the farm owner. Some have opportunities to branch out to farm ownership, or become partners on an established farm.

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While there are many more myths that can be debunked, I do want to get back to the conversation that still has me shaking my head. Apparently, a national animal rights organization has decided that wearing a wool sweater is harmful to the sheep that provided the wool. They are implying that the sheep are harmed in order to gather the wool, which is then cleaned, spun into yarn and knit into a sweater or other garment.

When I asked the shepherdesses if they had heard this concern before, they confirmed that they, too, have indeed. One recalled a mother with a young child saying, “It was a shame that they had to kill the sheep to get the wool.” I am hoping those of you reading this know and understand that the wool is shorn humanely from the sheep, just like you and I might be to get a clipper cut. When I was in college I took a sheep production course, and one of the assignments was to shear a sheep. The sheep I was lucky enough to get was older, and reminded me of a young child sitting in the hairdresser or barber chair with their mom getting their first haircut: a little wiggly, happy when done, but none the worse for the experience.

I wanted to share this with the hope of clearing up this misconception. Should you hear a friend or neighbor question using wool because of the harm to the sheep, encourage them to seek the truth. There are many trusted sources to seek for answering questions related to farming and agriculture. Certainly Cornell Cooperative Extension is one; plus, each county has a CCE office! The Farm Bureau is also a trusted source, and there is no one better to speak to the practices they use than your farm neighbor.

Just because we are several generations removed from farming does not mean we should not work to understand how important this industry is to our economy, environment and well-being. And by the way, I am even more than three generations removed from a farm. I am, however, one of the fortunate who had the opportunity to study agriculture in college, and even worked on a dairy farm for over five years.

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Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.