By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
BERLIN, GERMANY – Many consumers today don’t understand modern agriculture. Activists are spreading misinformation about farming. Myths about farming seem to carry more weight than facts.
Sound familiar? These were hot topics in northern Germany when European farmers, veterinarians and other ag professionals met with an American delegation of ag professionals, including six ag leaders from Iowa, for the Transatlantic Agricultural Dialogue on Consumer Engagement from Nov. 11-16.
The meeting was supported by the German-American Chamber of Commerce.
“This experience highlighted why we must make time to share the what and why of how we do things on the farm,” said Chad Ingels, a farmer from Randalia, Iowa, who participated in the study trip. “Consumers around the world really have no idea what happens in the day-to-day activities on the farm. We need to share our story and keep it simple, without using ‘farmer jargon.'”
Ingels, who raises corn, soybeans and hogs and is active on social media, appreciated the opportunity to exchange practical ideas to address the public’s questions about food production.
During these discussions, ag leaders from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean shared their top 10 tips for engaging with consumers.
1. Be willing to engage
Who is telling agriculture’s story, and what are they saying? Don’t leave it to chance, said Caroline van der Plas, from the Netherlands, who encourages farmers to build relationships and share their story with consumers, the media and lawmakers.
“If you don’t share your story, others like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will tell it for you,” said van der Plas, who coordinates the Dutch social media project @boerburgertweet, which allows farmers to share their story with consumers on Twitter.
The ripple effect from one story can be powerful, noted Janice Person, online engagement director for Bayer CropScience.
Person, who was the keynote speaker at the Transatlantic Agricultural Dialogue on Consumer Engagement, credits one interview more than 20 years ago with Louisiana farmer Ray Young for motivating her to pursue an agricultural communications career.
“I was a city girl from Memphis who was interested in ecology,” said Person. “When I interviewed Ray Young, he had me so focused on his soils that I can still see them in my mind. He explained conservation tillage and helped me understand how he was getting it to work on his farm. By taking the time to tell his story, Ray helped me become an influencer for agriculture.”
2. Look at ag through consumers’ eyes
Empathy matters. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, Person said.
“Many people today are hearing things about food and agriculture that scare them,” she said. “Sometimes people are angry, sometimes they are confused and sometimes they want to listen.”
Person added that most people just want what’s best for their families, noting that farmers can bring a valuable, real-world perspective to the conservation.
3. Tell a different side of the story
While most consumers have heard a lot about organic farming, they rarely hear about other types of production.
“It’s easy for people to think there’s only one side of the story or one way to farm, unless you share a different perspective,” Person said.
4. Focus on the moveable middle
Activists are loud, but they still a minority, said Nadine Henke, an ag-vocate from Germany.
“There are still a lot of people in the middle, but few really understand modern agriculture,” Henke said. “We can reach out to them.”
5. Find inspiring ag-vocates
There are many ag-vocates to follow online, from Dirt Sweat N Tears (@farmermegzz), a film industry specialist turned farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada; to Derek Klingenberg (@Farmer Derek), a Kansas farmer and rancher whose popular YouTube videos range from him playing his trombone to call his cows to a video of a college choir singing in his new grain bin.
“We have different crops and livestock and various ways of farming, so our stories are all different,” Person said. “What ag-vocates have in common is their decision to tell their story and make a positive impact.”
6. Never underestimate face-to-face conversations
While social media gets a lot of attention, it’s not the only place to tell ag’s story, according to Person.
“Some of the most important conservations still take place in person,” she said.
7. Show how technology can be part of the solution
“Most people like to be modern,” Person said.
She suggested sharing the story of modern ag by showing how technology is helping protect the environment with solutions like precision spraying.
“People love to discover things,” Person said. “They don’t like to be lectured to. Sharing knowledge can create a sense of wonder.”
8. Stay on track
Challenge people and encourage them to think about a different viewpoint, but always be respectful of your audience, Person said.
“Be careful about going on defense too soon,” she said. “Also, make time to explain not just the how, but why you do what you do on the farm.”
Person further suggested not to stop with posting pictures; share your stories of the land and what about the region is special.
Those with livestock should explain the hows and whys of manure management. Cooks can showcase seasonal foods and recipes.
Van der Plas added to not spend too much time on that those who aren’t willing to listen and only want to argue.
“The longer you engage with activists, the less time you have to tell your story,” she said.
9. Build trust
What’s the ultimate goal of telling ag’s story? Building trust.
“It’s all relationship-based, and trusted relationships are so important,” Person said.
10. Take the long view
Communication is not a once-and-done process. Telling ag’s story is an ongoing process.
“What can you do in the next year, and the next five years, to tell your story?” Person asked.
Ag professionals also need to remember they’re not alone.
“Sometimes food and farming issues feel so polarized that it’s easy to forget other people are saying the same things we are,” Person said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to reach out with ag’s story. Know that there is power in coming together.”
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