Tuesday, March 25, 2014

National Ag Day and the Road Less Traveled

Submitted by Barry Nelson, John Deere

Now that the weather is finally warming up, I went out for a long ride on my road bike, a carbon fiber Specialized Roubaix! This is my preferred aerobic exercise to get my heart rate up while alleviating the pain in a sore knee! On this particular route, I’m able to get outside the city and onto less traveled country roads. It was a gorgeous, sunny day for a thought-provoking ride as I whirred past many of the farm fields in the area. This was quite a relief from the long winter we experienced this year. I was searching for a blog topic for the National Ag Day website and had one of those “ah-ha” moments on mile 6. The light bulb in my brain went from a dull flicker to a bright glow!

 I was thinking about all the talented farm men and women I’ve met this past year at many of the farm shows, producer seminars, and special events. When you hear the personal stories from these farmers about how and why they farm, the challenges for their businesses, and the commitment and enthusiasm they have for farming and their land, there can be no stronger advocates for the importance of agriculture to this nation. I wish every American could hear some of their personal stories.

Even with many of the commodity groups, ag companies, and special interest groups advocating on behalf of their farm constituents, many in the city are not getting the message. These folks are further removed from the farm, and some of our messaging has been very logical, technical, and scientific. We need to do a better job of communicating on a more personal level to urban grocery shoppers who only want to provide safe and nutritious food for their families.

The U.S. Farmer and Rancher Alliance (USFRA) www.fooddialogues.com has done extensive research on the appropriate messaging when communicating to an urban audience.  Their website has many great ideas for resonating more effectively with this important audience. 

We are all on a challenging journey taking a road less traveled, which reminds me of the famous poem by Robert Frost. But we are also traveling on new roads, and there are many misconceptions about how we produce the food, fiber, and fuel for the world’s population.

Farmers and ranchers must be able to provide enough safe, nutritious food for a growing population that will reach 9 billion by the year 2045. The producers must be able to do this with about the same amount of land and less water. They must be efficient, with more precise use of seed, fertilizer, and crop care products. And they must do this sustainably, protecting the land and preserving their farms for future generations.

The challenge remains, however, to communicate directly with consumers in large cities. How can a farmer have some personal face-to-face interaction with the end user of their food products? Fewer and fewer consumers understand the challenges of providing the food they eat every day.

One solution is to more effectively use social media to communicate and have personal interaction with more residents in the city. I met some wonderful socially engaged farmers and ranchers who are already doing this. They have very professional websites and blogs and are reaching out individually to food experts and consumers. They are personally engaged in promoting the strengths of agriculture in the United States. 

But all of this takes time, and we don’t have much of that to go around. Personally, I will be challenging   myself to communicate better and continue to weave this important message into the presentations I make to groups who want to know more about agriculture. As ag communicators, we could all be part of the solution to more effectively communicate the challenges, hard work, and expertise needed to raise crops and livestock in today’s complicated world.

Social media is opening up many new ways to communicate directly with an audience. Imagine if, in the future, before someone goes to a store or restaurant, they could use Facetime to contact a local producer to ask questions about how they raise their crops and animals. Face-to-face, personal interaction builds trust and credibility. 

My opinion of social media is evolving because this new media will allow farmers and ranchers to reach their customers and develop relationships like never before.

So, although I’ve been more conservative on the use of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, I’m on a personal mission to better understand social media. This has been my less-traveled road, but an increasingly more important road that will help us reach more of the consumers we ultimately serve. In the meantime, I am busy trying to understand Ning, Yammer, Vlogging, and Widgets while creating a Tag Cloud! I’m very fortunate to have found the road less traveled in agriculture because that has made all the difference in my career and personal life.