“I met a cowboy in the hallway…”

I was recently at a conference with a group of cattle ranchers. It was held at a hotel, so there were other meetings and events going on in the space. One day, while I was grabbing lunch from a buffet in the foyer, a woman (not with our group) came up to a rancher, very excited, and said “Can I take your picture? I’ve never seen a real cowboy before!”

As I smiled to myself and continued to get my food, he let her take is picture. Like most of the ranchers I know, he was very friendly and asked her where she was from.

“California,” she said.

“California!?” he replied. “Don’t they have funny people there?”

The woman laughed kindly and said, “Well, I suppose you could find Californians funny.”

But the rancher meant something else. He clarified, “No, I mean they’re funny. Don’t they all smoke a lot of weed and let the gays get married?”

Now, I want to say that this rancher wasn’t trying to be mean. But, I could tell the woman was uncomfortable, despite trying to answer his questions. As he was pressing incredulously about if she thought it was alright for “the gays” to get married, I wandered away, not really wanting to see where this was going to end (I probably should have stayed, but admittedly I tend to avoid most things confrontational).

Now, obviously I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, so I’ll give the rancher the benefit of the doubt and say it could have gotten better, but what I heard made me rather uncomfortable. This is not a post about changing what you do or don’t believe. The topics discussed could have been about Obamacare and global warming instead. No, this is about being a positive representation of the farming and ranching community.

This woman had never met a rancher before and, unfortunately, her first experience seemed to me to be an awkward one. Instead of talking about what a real cowboy does on his ranch, she was being pressed for her belief on controversial topics that she may or may not have agreed with. And I would bet she went back to her friends in their meeting and told them all about the cowboy she met in the hallway who could not get over why anyone would smoke a bunch of weed and let the gays go off and marry each other. Would she use terms like “backwoods” or “redneck”? I don’t know. Maybe (hopefully) not. But it’s a possibility, and is that really how we want to be remembered?

In agriculture, we have enough of an uphill battle with our non-farming friends in terms of their ideas around how we raise our crops and our livestock. And it’s no secret that we may have different belief sets than a lot of our urban counterparts. But let’s remember to focus on the things we have in common during initial conversations — compassion, love of family, wanting to do the right thing — and leave the people we meet with thoughts of “We’re in this together.” rather than “That guy is nothing like me.” Because when “That guy is nothing like me…” is combined with “…and I don’t like how he takes care of his animals/crops.” we’re in a losing battle.

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