David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions
This May, as I have every spring over the last 40+ years, I’ll eagerly watch a new crop of college graduates as they join the ranks of agricultural advertising agencies and agribusinesses and begin working with America’s farmers and ranchers. Most of these graduates won’t know the first thing about the farmers and ranchers they’ll be assigned to work with; fewer than 2 percent of Americans live on farms today, and the number with any exposure to an agricultural operation isn’t much higher. With this in mind I’d like to share some insights gathered from my years working with and for America’s farmers, in hopes that it will help those called to the agricultural front lines without having had the benefit of a farming background.
- Farmers are some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. The common image of a farmer sitting on a porch watching crops grow while chewing a piece of straw is not just outdated, it was never accurate, and today it’s criminally wrong. The vast majority of the farmers I’ve met over the years hold college degrees, many of them with advanced degrees. Running a modern farming operation requires the same skills as leading a manufacturing or service company – and then some. A successful farmer must be skilled as an agronomist, plant pathologist, entomologist, accountant, meteorologist, mechanic, electrician, computer specialist, and HR director. They have to be gamblers, magicians, and masochists. It’s not a job for the uninitiated, uninformed, or indecisive.
- Farming is hard, hard, hard work. Paul Harvey’s famous broadcast “So God made a Farmer” describes the challenge of finishing a forty-hour week by Tuesday noon before putting in another 72 hours, and there’s much truth to this. I’ve never met a farmer who was afraid of hard work. On top of that, farmers have to deal with the everyday challenges that face us all – raising a family, keeping a marriage on track, paying bills on time, making ends meet, and dealing with teenagers. It’s not a job for the lazy.
- Farmers are alike but not homogeneous. There are many common traits that farmers share: hard work, deductive reasoning skills, calm in the face of adversity, a deep love of the land they work and a shared desire to treat it with respect and positive environmental stewardship. And while many farmers are fans of country music, NASCAR, college football, and conservative politics, by no means are all farmers in these camps. I’ve spent time in tractor cabs with growers listening to music that varied from Alabama to Frank Zappa, from Mozart to Motown. I’ve also spent time with farmers who preferred reading to watching sports, who hated auto racing, and who generally voted for Democrats or Libertarians at election time. Don’t assume you know how farmers think or where they’re coming from before you get the chance to size them up.
- Do your homework. Before you meet with a farmer, spend some time learning about the agricultural practices in his or her area. What are the dominant crops? Most common rotations? Tillage practices? You won’t become an expert, not by a long shot, but they’ll appreciate the fact that you cared enough to do some cursory research. To be perfectly honest, most farmers are resigned to the fact that the non-farm world doesn’t really care about them or their operations – and many of the farmers I know are perfectly fine with that – but taking the time to learn a little about them will earn you some of their respect. In conversation, don’t pretend to know something you don’t; they’ll see through that quickly. It’s best to admit you don’t understand and ask for an explanation. Always try to listen more than you talk, and have a list of questions prepared. Make sure to ask them what they’re doing differently from their neighbors; it might lead to a story you didn’t expect. Farmers, like most people, are happy to share what they know and do with people who are truly interested in learning.
- Respect their time. Always be punctual for interviews. If you find yourself lost or running late – and that’s not uncommon in rural areas – make sure they’re apprised. They’ll fill the time while they’re waiting for you; in fact, it’s important that you understand there are a million things that can demand a farmer’s time at any given moment. Be flexible and be prepared to talk to them in the truck while they run errands, in the tractor cab, in the maintenance shed, or walking rows in the field. The interview – particularly if you’re shooting video – may not go exactly as you planned, but you’ll get what you need and more if you’re willing to work with farmers around their schedules. Along those same lines, know when it’s time to leave. Most of the farmers I met are gracious to a fault and won’t throw you off their property – but they’ll be relieved when you’re gone and they can get back to work.
- Common courtesy goes a long way. If you can, offer to buy the farmer breakfast or lunch before or after your interview. Bring a cooler of bottled water and soft drinks if you’re working with them in their fields. Thank them sincerely and often for spending time with you. Make sure they know exactly what you plan to do with the interview, photos, or video you’re taking, as well as the timetable for when the materials will be used. And if your plans change, let them know what other uses you have for the material. Make sure they understand your agency’s or editorial board’s policy for reviewing material before it’s published; farmers will generally be more forthcoming if they know specifically what you need and what you’re planning to do with it.
- Share the farmer’s enthusiasm! I’m constantly amazed at how willing farmers are to take time out of their obviously very busy schedules to meet with me. I’m convinced it’s because farmers are generally excited to share what they’re doing with someone who cares enough to ask. A photo shoot or video capture in a small farming community can be a big deal; it’s not uncommon to have a local media team come out when they know you’ll be there. To you, it may be just another interview, perhaps one of many you’re doing that day. To the farmer, it can be a milestone event. Treat it as such. Don’t forget to send photos or some token of appreciation such as a gift card. It’s not just polite – it helps ensure they won’t forget you.
I hope these insights will benefit the next generation of ag communicators, the majority of whom, like me, didn’t have the privilege of being raised on a farm. Prior to my first “real job,” the closest I got to agriculture was the occasional hunting trip or hayride. I learned about farmers and farming over time, and am living proof that new college grads can, through diligent study and observation, gain agricultural proficiency. Today, after more than four decades in the business, I consider it the highest praise possible to hear a farmer tell me, “It’s obvious you grew up on a farm.” And I hope that will serve as a goal for the next generation.
David Vincent has spent 45 years working with blue-chip agricultural companies and agencies in Memphis, New York City, Connecticut, Milwaukee and St. Louis, among other locations. He is currently based in Nashville, Tenn.