I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel titled “Do Millenials Distrust Big Ag?” at the Canadian Global Grains Symposium. The panel was moderated by Montanto’s Director of Online Engagement Vance Crow. At the end of the panel Vance asked each panelist a loaded question: “What do you know about agriculture that no one agrees with you on?” It was a thought provoking question, and luckily, one of the few questions he gave us beforehand. It got me thinking? What do I know that everyone in agriculture disagrees with me on? So I decided to test a theory:
We really do not know much more than the average consumer when it comes to the global agriculture community and food production. Think about it. Sure we have general ideas about how farmers think, general economics, and the lifestyle. But do we really have any more expertise outside of our own operations and geographic locations? Not really. We go to the grocery store and find a multitude of choices and options delivered from all over the globe, just like any other consumer. There is a small percentage of those items that I can honestly tell you that I have first hand knowledge of how they got there.
It has taken me a long time to formulate my thoughts on that theory and I will likely be editing it for months to come. But in a short period of time, as a result of one thought provoking question, how I look at advocating for this industry has changed dramatically. The shift was coupled by a compelling article written by Kelvin Heppner of Real Agriculture. His article titled “The Unintended Benefit of signing up to raise ag awareness” discussed the value of listening to consumers, understanding their mindset, and learning as much from their questions as we provide “education” in answering them.
It was an opportunity to gain insight into what people think about farming — people who ultimately drive demand for what’s grown and how things are grown on farms. Hearing different perspectives, whether they’re accurate or not, helps us understand why other people have the priorities that they do. In this case, when it comes to how society views farming and farming practices, that can be valuable information.
I suddenly wanted to ensure I was presenting myself as someone open to consumer questions, I want to be someone my urban friends and family can approach and ask their questions. I want to be the person they contact when they buy a house next to a corn field and have questions because they really do not know. I also want to be the person that listens to their concerns. Listens to their understanding of agriculture. Listens to both their fears and their excitement about food production.
As I thought about my theory and discussed it with other individuals ahead of the panel I realized I myself go to the grocery store, pick out my favorite items, and give about zero thought to how it got there. I have loved peanuts my whole life. I did not know until I traveled to Georgia several years ago that they in fact grow underground, similar to a potato. Turns out they are a legume, not a nut. My thought: “Huh, so THAT’S how that works.” I kept thinking, how many times do we see something in agriculture and have that exact thought? We do not really think about it much because it is our industry, but if you spend any time touring grain handling facilities, other commodities, end user processing facilities, or shipping operations, it is a thought that crosses our minds hundreds of times.
We raised black oilseed sunflowers for a whole season and I did not know until I turned on the unload auger on our combine and watched them pour into the grain card that they are in fact black as coal. There is a reason for the name. Turns out they are also a main ingredient in bird seed, as well as safflower. I have been looking at birdseed, starting with making bird feeders in elementary school with pine cones and peanut butter, for decades and never once have I considered how that mix got in that bag. Now for two of the ingredients, safflower and black oilseed sunflowers, I know. I have raised them. “Huh, so THAT’S how that works.”
Now that I had thought about it, I realized that despite my wide ranging network of farmers and ranchers throughout social media I still do not know someone that farmers a multitude of products I use. Bananas? Nope. Peaches? Nope. Flathead cherries? Nope. Potatoes? Maybe a few now that I have some Twitter connections in Idaho. Apples? Umm do not think so. Vanilla? Nope. Spinach? Nope. Onions? Nope. You get the picture . . . Farmers are at best 2% of the population, so the chances an average consumer knows a farmer, is slim. We know we have to build our online presence to combat misinformation, we know we have to expand consumer outreach, but we also have to be cognizant that we know very little about our own industry.
Communication and Advocacy
As I was further contemplating the issue I realized how careful we have to be when we communicate about agriculture because we do know so little about our industry. It was highlighted for me during the great Glyphosate and Wheat debacle several years ago. One one hand there were hundreds of wheat farmers shouting online that this was ridiculous, it never happened, and if you did pre-harvest apply glyphosate on wheat you were an idiot. On the other hand you have farmers from the northern Great Plains and Canada churning out blog posts about why they do in fact apply wheat pre-harvest. As I sat watching this, luckily it was a debate I chose to watch instead of weigh in on – because pre-harvest applications of glyphosate are in fact unheard of in my area and my experience – I thought, how difficult this must be to parse out if you are an inexperienced consumer. How in the world are they supposed to figure out who is “right” or who is “wrong”. Or who is reliable and who is not?
I learned from that moment that we can only tell our own story, our own experiences, and blanket statements do not apply to agriculture. More than that, I learned a valuable lesson in how little I knew about agriculture outside of my own area and experiences. There are a lot of different ways to raise wheat, barley, canola, soybeans, corn, etc. There are a lot of “best practices” depending on the area or region one is located. What works in South Central Montana does not always work in Northeastern Montana and what works in Texas certainly might not work in North Dakota.
The most important lesson I learned in all of this is the need to listen, listen to fellow producers, research topics thoroughly, and listen to consumers before weighing in on a topic. It is very easy to do more harm than good when we weigh in from an uninformed position.
The Road Forward
I honestly do not know how my theory will develop, or how the change in my thoughts on advocacy will develop, but I do know I am hopeful it will make me a better advocate for agriculture. I am hopeful I can continue to develop connections, deepen my roots into all different types of agricultural production and throughout the supply chain. I am hopeful that I will be a person my friends, family and strangers can approach with their questions. I am hopeful that I will be able to answer them with an open mind. I am also hopeful that I will know when to say, “I have no idea, but let’s reach out to my friends,” in order to further communication between consumers and producers.
I am also hopeful that this theory allows other agricultural communicators to self reflect on our role as consumers, and the number of products we utilize on a daily basis and do not think twice about the farmer than produced them. Approaching agricultural communication from the standpoint of a consumer who happens to be a part of the agricultural community might give us greater insight into the mindset of our consumers that do have questions. Our consumers that want to know and want to be able to say: “huh, THAT’S how that works.”