DES MOINES - Talk isn't cheap when it comes to farming and food. The right message can enlighten minds and change opinions-and it all comes down to speaking the language of food, rather than the language of farming.
"For far too long, people outside of agriculture have driven the conversation about farming and food production," said Erika Poppelreiter, a consultant with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, who spoke at the Iowa Ag Leaders Forum in Des Moines recently. "While people are really passionate about food, they have a lot of misconceptions that are causing them to doubt farmers."
Nearly half (49 percent) of consumers believe conventional agriculture is on the wrong track, according to a recent survey by USFRA. Consumers are also increasingly skeptical, assuming that if farmers aren't sharing information, they must have something to hide. Compound this with the small - yet vocal - minority that's speaking out against agriculture and is driving many misinformed conversations that influence consumers' decisions at the grocery store and the ballot box.
-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Erika Poppelreiter, center, a consultant with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, told farmers that consumers are increasingly interested in how food is grown and raised. During her March 16 presentation at the Iowa Ag Leaders Forum in Des Moines, she shared tips on how to talk about farming in a consumer-friendly way.
"Many consumers are uncomfortable with the tools of modern agriculture, including biotechnology," Poppelreiter said. "Anything that seems unnatural to consumers creates fear. That's why we need to speak the language of food, rather than the language of farming and ranching."
The right words matter
Speaking the language of food instead of the language of farming goes far beyond explaining ag jargon. It requires a new mindset to earn consumers' trust, Poppelreiter said.
"When we say we're raising more to feed the world, consumers think farmers just want to produce more to sell to the world. When we talk about a secure food supply, consumers hear 'farmers want subsidies and lax regulation.' When farmers say we're producing an abundant food supply, urban people think this sounds like farmers are contributing to obesity. When farmers say, 'our methods are proven safe,' consumers think, 'your methods tamper with nature.'"
When USFRA asked consumers about their greatest concerns about the methods that conventional farmers and ranchers use, the largest percentage (37 percent) cited unintended, long-term health effects. "Fundamentally, what consumers are asking is: what are the long-term implications on my health from what you're doing to raise my food?" Poppelreiter said.
Poppelreiter and the USFRA offer these tips to talk about farming in a consumer-friendly way:
Acknowledge concerns with an open mind. People don't like to be told they are wrong, they like to think they are already educated. While you don't have to agree with consumers' questions and concerns about food and agriculture, listen to these concerns and acknowledge them, Poppelreiter said. "To start the conversation, you can say, 'I understand your concern,' or 'I can see why you feel that way,' or 'A lot of people have that same question.'"
Talk about what concerns consumers-not necessarily what farmers want to talk about. "It's vital for farmers to know more about what's on consumers' minds so we can answer their questions more effectively," Poppelreiter said. "While we may want to talk about higher yields and producing more, for example, it can be more effective to talk about sustainability and using less, including less water or fewer resources."
Don't refute with facts or science alone. Addressing a concern with a refuting set of facts only dismisses the concern and does nothing to open a conversation. "If you don't trust food production, you don't trust its facts," Poppelreiter said. "Instead, explain to consumers what you do on your farm and why you do it."
Turn off your defenses. Always approach every conversation-even ones that feel like an attack-as an opportunity to share your story. If the conversation turns to biotech, for example, explain that biotech seeds help you grow stronger, more resilient crops on your farm. If a consumer has concerns about antibiotic use in livestock production, tell how farmers try to prevent animals from getting sick and want to provide them with the right care when they need it. This can include antibiotics that help animals live healthier lives.
Focus on continuous improvement. Nobody is perfect, so don't claim to be 100 percent right. Do emphasize agriculture's commitment to continuous improvement, however. "As you share meaningful details about how you grow food, explain how you are always seeking more effective solutions," Poppelreiter said.
While there's no silver bullet to rebuild trust in the food and agriculture industries, it's important for more farmers to speak up and focus on the "movable middle," Poppelreiter said.
These people in the moveable middle are not activists, and they aren't opposed to agriculture, but they do have questions.
"It's phenomenal how many people want to talk about how food is raised," Poppelreiter said. "There's always an opportunity to create a conversation and lead the discussion, whether it's at the grocery store, at the airport, at a sporting event, through a letter to the editor, or on your blog or Facebook page."