Each year, state Farm Bureau public relations directors and communications staff gather to share information, challenges, theories and ideas. This year, I was fortunate enough to participate in that sharing and I am more invigorated than ever about raising the image of U.S. agriculture.
I was invited to the 2010 American Farm Bureau Federation Public Relations Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, along with my colleague Kathryn Pinke. She gave a presentation about the important work we are doing with the California Agricultural Communications Coalition to help draw consumers in that state closer to agriculture. We were invited because that is exactly what each state Farm Bureau is trying to do right now.
It’s a problem that has faced agriculture for decades, but attendees were in agreement that in recent years the situation has reached a critical situation. As one attendee told me during the conference, “There’s a void of knowledge about agriculture with consumers and it’s starting get filled with negative half-truths and misrepresentations. If we don’t engage and inform the public about agriculture, Michael Pollan and Wayne Pacelle are more than happy to do it.”
If you are in agriculture today, that thought should give you shivers. Pollan has slammed the corn industry and the cattle industry in both books (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and film (Food, Inc.) – while Pacelle is president of Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which seems to aim to eliminate animal agriculture altogether.
No other speaker articulated the threats our industry faces more than Jack Fisher, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau, who told the story of his dealings with Pacelle and HSUS. He said upon his first meeting, he could tell the strategy was to play the agricultural groups against each other. “From the beginning, the unity of the ag community was under fire,” he said. “He (Pacelle) aimed to divide and conquer.”
Fisher said if there was one recommendation he had for his colleagues throughout the agricultural industry, it was to remember that though the agricultural cause is a noble one, we still need the public’s authorization to accomplish it.
“We are obliged to seek and maintain permission to feed the world,” said Fisher. I thought his point was particularly eloquent. As we in agriculture struggle to raise the profile of our industry among consumers, we must remember that we do rely, quite heavily, on the public’s approval. And if we want that approval, we need to educate, which means we need to get consumers engaged and invested in what we have to say.
In the end, I was unable to stay for the complete conference, but during my short time with the group, I was able to identify four key principles for bringing consumers and agriculture closer together:
- We must stay united in all we do. There are hundreds of ag special interest groups across the United States, but we need unified messaging in this effort. We need the ideals we advocate to consumers to transcend all of agriculture.
- ‘Family’ is essential. In the research discussed at the conference, consumers had a very positive view of “family farmers,” despite their criticisms of practices. The industry needs to embrace this and raise the awareness about the prevalence of family-owned farms in America.
- Farmers are our best spokespersons. Consumers love to hear from farmers and they trust what they say. Besides – the purest messages come straight from the source.
- We have a great, engaging story to tell. We just need to bring it to the masses in a very honest and open manner. Consumers are our customers and our partners. They want U.S. agriculture to succeed, but they are mired down right now in a mixture of misinformation and unawareness.
What strategies do you think will help reach consumers with the most positive and important stories about agriculture?