There’s a Need to Preach More to the Ag Choir

Franklin County was well represented at the Iowa Agriculture Leadership Forum, March 15-16, 2013, in Des Moines. Larry Sailer is back row, second from the left. From row, from left to right: Shannon Latham, April Hemmes and Val Plagge.

If you follow my posts, you know that winter is “meeting season” for Midwest farmers.  Many of the meetings I attend are a two-hour drive from my farm, so I have plenty of windshield time – alone with my thoughts.  I spent a lot of time (probably too much time!), analyzing what I’ve learned from these meetings and thinking about how I can apply this new knowledge to my operation.  I also spend a lot of time in the winter months reading ag-related articles and blog posts.

Yesterday, Shannon Latham’s blog post about how members of the ag community define “technology” differently made me think about the stark contrast between two meetings I’ve recently attended.  Midwest farm leaders gathered at both of these meetings, but their use of technology was totally different.

The AgChat Upper Midwest Regional Conference in February was all about technology, so it was “socially acceptable” for attendees to send Tweets and update their Facebook status throughout the conference.  In fact, it was encouraged!  Sponsors announced the hashtag (#ACFR13), and many speakers began their presentation by telling audience members their Twitter handle.  Presentation topics ranged from how to set up a Twitter account to creating a fan page on Facebook for your farm, and even fine-tuning your blogging skills.  As fellow Franklin County farmer Val Plagge says, “The Upper Midwest Regional Conference was set-up to empower farmers and ranchers to connect communities through social media platforms.”  And that’s really what that did!

Then about two weeks ago I attended the Iowa Ag Leadership Forum, which was really a reunion for alumni of training programs from several groups including: the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association and Iowa Soybean Association.  The one thing everyone in the room had in common was a desire to share what he/she knows about farming with folks who don’t understand it… or so I thought!

Erika Poppelreiter

I was proved wrong during a question and answer session led by Erika Poppelreiter (@poppel), a Kansas farmer and representative for the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (@USFRA).  Erika had just given a presentation about the USFRA’s The Food Dialogues: New York, where farmers, ranchers, industry experts, pundits and media tackled some of today’s toughest questions on biotechnology (GMOs), antibiotic use on farms and ranches, and how media and marketing influence “healthy” food choices.

It was then that an Iowa farmer stood up and asked Ericka, “Why should I give a damn about what customers think?”  A brief moment of silence followed.

Most of us were a little slow to come up with the answer for that person, but Erika did respond with an example of what happened with caged layers and the impact that could on of the use of gestation crates.  The end product is still pork (bacon), and it should be up to the producer to determine the best way for him to produce that pork.

If only I would’ve been quicker on my feet!  I would’ve shared this quote with that farmer:

We as agricultural producers are proud of feeding our world, but that doesn’t go far when the world doesn’t understand how we produce that food.  We must participate in conversations with consumers at every opportunity.  I am proud of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance for starting these dialogues with both the pro and con sides represented. It’s the only way we can explain our story to others and not just ourselves.” – Barb Determan, a Sioux County Iowa farmer and pork advocate, who served on a panel at The Food Dialogues: New York

Barb Determan

Barb mentions that farmers need to share their stories with others besides like-minded individuals.  While I thought farmers were pretty good about preaching to the choir, it appears our work is not done!  Perhaps we need to fine-tune our message, so our fellow producers understand “why” it’s so important for us to share our stories with consumers.

I have given that farmer’s some thought since the Ag Leadership Forum.  In an ideal world, his way of thinking would be great.  It’s just not acceptable today because there are so many groups opposed to certain farming practices.  There is no simple answer.  We must take our message to the rest of the congregation if we want to continue to raise our products in a way that allows us to make a living, free from unnecessary rules and regulations.

“How do we share with consumers what we want them to know?” asked another attendee at the Ag Leaders Forum.  I believe we need to take AgChat to the state level.  Each state’s ag leaders much understand how to communicate, effectively, using today’s technology.  For example, there were only 20 tweets total from the two-day Ag Leader Forum.  I would guess (and this literally a guess because I can’t count them all) there were way more than 20 per hour coming out of the AgChat Convention!

Iowa Farmers lead the nation in production, yet they’re slow to adopt social media for advocacy.

Farmers and ranchers are always looking for a way to do something better.  It is what we do!  Technology has been used from the time early settlers learned from the natives the value of using fish to fertilize crops to farming with smartphones.  It’s time for the masses to adopt communications technology.  I’m not saying social media is the only way. Face-to-face visits go a long ways toward sharing and communicating, but social media really allows us to have a broader reach.

With more consumers curious about where their food comes from and how it’s raised, there is a greater need for more farmers to share their stories.  If you’re a fellow farmer, I encourage you to share your story!