David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions
“I guess I’d just have to get used to eating canned food.”
That was the answer I received from an accomplished photographer when I asked what he’d do if supermarkets emptied out and there was no food to be had. This guy had an Ivy League degree and had traveled the world on assignment for some of the nation’s most prestigious magazines. He was smart as a whip and well versed on a wide range of topics, except how food finds its way into a can.
I never cease to be amazed by just how far removed from the food chain most people are today. And by “most people,” I mean about 95 percent of the U.S. population. These folks don’t have a clue about the realities, significance, and achievements of modern agriculture and what it takes to put food on their tables.
This general lack of understanding about food production is frightening, but it is reality. Our ability to meet the most basic essential human need – food – is not only greatly misunderstood, but it is also underappreciated. Just as electricity doesn’t just happen when you flip a switch, food does not originate in the grocery store. We take our full stomachs for granted.
Once, while discussing this topic with a grizzled and wise Colorado rancher, he said: “What this country needs is a good famine to put peoples’ heads back on straight where the importance of food is concerned.” And while I don’t wish a famine on anyone, I nevertheless had to admit that this rancher had a point.
Very few Americans have ever set foot on a farm. We now have less than two percent of the population engaged in food production. This frees up the other 98 percent to become doctors, lawyers, musicians, nurses, teachers, and Starbucks baristas, while creating a chasm between farmers and the non-farm world that ranges from ignorance to outright opposition.
The phenomenal success of U.S. farmers in producing the world’s safest, most abundant, and least expensive food supply has created a marketplace of well-fed but highly uninformed customers who have the luxury to second-guess farmers and farming practices. Consumers have legitimate questions about food quality and safety, environmental concerns, and animal husbandry, but few of them are willing to spend the time to learn how food is really produced. But, on the flip side, they can easily find distorted, biased, and misleading answers on the internet, social channels, and sadly, even the mainstream media.
Those of us who are blessed to work on farms or with farmers have a responsibility to help set the record straight and go to bat for that beleaguered two percent of the population that meets our most important basic need. And, we have a really good story to tell.
Agriculture is the single-most important industry in the world. Period! A civilization is only as strong as its agricultural base. This has been true throughout history and will continue to be true. There are countries in the world today with 60-70 percent of their populations engaged in farming, yet people are still starving. Without an ample and dependable food supply, there’s literally little need for other vocations. I once heard a renowned heart surgeon claim that the field of medicine was by far the most important endeavor for the survival of the human race. Really? All the medical care in the world won’t help anyone who is starving.
People trust farmers. In a strange paradox, a general distrust of the agricultural industry as a whole has been increasing for decades, but the perception of individual farmers is still very positive. Farmers have enjoyed a respectful place in the social fabric of the United States for generations, harkening back to a time in the not-so-distant past when many Americans were employed on or near farms. Today, that number is a fraction of what it was 75 years ago, but most Americans still view farmers favorably.
We have the facts on our side. “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing,” advised author Robert Heinlein. “It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” In the same vein, I’ve learned it’s rarely productive to engage and debate the rabid anti-farm lobbyists trolling social media and being featured on the nightly news and morning talk show circuit with their hand-picked facts and Armageddon outlooks. Having said that, I’m more than happy to help educate family members, friends and neighbors who have legitimate questions. The war for hearts and minds should start with an appeal to the heart, not a scientific lecture. A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that while the general public is interested in the farming industry and will gladly consume information about it, they don’t want to interact with scientific or detailed information until they’ve made an emotional or personal connection first. In short, we need to appeal first to their emotions, not their intellect.
We have great stories to tell. And the best stories are simple, upbeat and local.
- People want to feel good about farming and the food they eat. If they connect to something basic, they’ll be more receptive to more detailed information, but you must capture their attention first. Some of the most engaging farm content I’ve seen recently are farm-to-table pieces that highlight a particular commodity, its nutritional value, or the ease at which it can be incorporated into a dinner menu. Simple, yet persuasive. “How-to” videos that show a layperson how to plant a crop, feed an animal, mend a fence, or perform any of the thousand chores needed around a farm are always popular.
- There’s a reason why videos from the Peterson Farm Brothers tally views in the hundreds of thousands: They’re fun! They have a good sense of humor and a positive outlook on life – as do most of the farmers I’ve worked with for almost five decades. When we tell our stories with a smile, we’ll have far more impact than when we’re lecturing with a scowl. Besides, for many farmers, this isn’t just an occupation. It’s a livelihood, a passion, and a way of life they’ve specifically chosen. All this needs to shine through to the non-farm public. Casting our stories in a light-hearted manner will help explain to them why we do what we do, why we love what we do, and why what we do is so essential to society.
- Farmers might assume that because they live in rural counties, everyone in that county understands agriculture. But these counties’ civic clubs, schools, churches, doctors’ offices and even their grocery stores are packed with folks who may know some farmers but don’t really understand what farmers do. Even our business partners in the food chain – packers and processors, grain elevators, restaurants, and food service providers – have only a limited understanding of what happens on a farm. Our friends and neighbors are the ones most likely to listen to our stories – and most likely to help spread them to their friends and neighbors.
A good farm advocate, or “agvocate,” is one who understands that 98 percent of the people around them are not anti-farm. They just don’t know anything about farming. They make a special effort to tell their stories whenever, wherever, and however they can, whether it’s a video of a farm mom carpooling with non-farm friends and explaining the many benefits of GMOs, or a visit to their kids’ classrooms – and not only on Earth Day.
And a good agvocate knows that, if we don’t tell our stories, there’s a long list of anti-farm groups waiting in the wings to tell theirs.