Talking up the job. Creating common ground between the farmer and consumer

What’s wrong with letting consumers know just how professional you have to be to grow their food in Canada today?

Every farmer has one. For Manitoba’s Rolf Penner, his aha moment came a few years back, when he suddenly realized just how hard it is for a farmer to talk to non-farmers about his business.

Penner and a farming friend were on a weekend getaway with their spouses. Neither wife had a farming background. As the weekend wore on, a little shop talk was inevitable, and the discussion turned to the recent wheat harvest and protein levels. Both took off decent yields, but Penner says his friend got better protein levels.

“I started to ask him if he’d done anything different, like top dressing some nitrogen,” Penner said. “Our wives overheard this and they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, and started teasing us about it. To us it was a straightforward question; to them it was something strange and funny.”

While a funny bit of jargon that turns into a running gag over the course of the weekend is a pretty mild example, Penner says it highlights a challenge farmers are always going to face. How can farmers talk like the experts they are when they engage with lay people about what they do and why they do it?

Making the problem even tougher to tackle, says Penner, is that gets such a rough start because of the way farmers view themselves.

Joe Farmer, PhD

“A lot of times we think of ourselves as dumb farmers,” says Penner. “That’s just not so. Think about the knowledge we have to have to farm, the technology we use every day. If you really think about it, we’re likely operating — and speaking — on the PhD level.”

To Penner, who grows grain and special crops and raises hogs near Morris, Man., this suggests farmers need to hone their messages for a non-agriculture audience so they can be ready to stand up and speak. There’s plenty of consumer interest in farming and food production these days, he believes, but unless growers take the time to define themselves, they’ll be defined by others.

“We have to be ready to talk,” Penner says.

Consumers want to hear from farmers, says FCC’s Carlson. “They want to hear us say, ‘We’ve got this. You’re in good hands.’”

Consumers want to hear from farmers, says FCC’s Carlson. “They want to hear us say, ‘We’ve got this. You’re in good hands.’”
photo: Supplied

Lyndon Carlson couldn’t agree more. He’s Farm Credit Canada’s senior vice-president of marketing, and among other responsibilities, he’s been working very hard the past few years on the “Agriculture More Than Ever” campaign that aims to arm farmers and others in the business as “agvocates” who can speak up for agriculture.

Carlson shares Penner’s worry that farmers downplay their own capabilities and contributions.

“It’s a cultural thing,” Carlson says. “There are a lot of farmers out there who are, by and large, very modest people. They don’t like to draw attention to themselves, they just quietly go about their business.”

In many ways, they’re the opposite of today’s narcissistic selfie culture, but that can be a good thing, Carlson says, because when agriculture can at times seem threatening or ominous (i.e. “big ag”), farmers are well liked and trusted, something that shows up year in and year out in public opinion surveys. Farmers consistently score near the top, although this goodwill can’t be taken for granted, Carlson insists.

“We’ve got to protect our social licence,” Carlson says. “People really want to hear from farmers, they want to hear us say, ‘We’ve got this, you’re in good hands.’”

That doesn’t mean patronizingly telling consumers not to worry, but neither does it mean taking a hard line or talking down to them. It means finding a way to present a message that finds common ground.

One stumbling block, Carlson concedes, is the highly technical nature of the business — but he insists these challenges aren’t something that only agriculture faces.

“Any business is like that,” Carlson says. “I don’t care if it’s manufacturing, or finance or information technology, we all develop our own language, filled with jargon and acronyms.”

Getting past this will be a milestone for agriculture, Carlson says, but it will only happen one conversation at a time, starting with farmers who are prepared to work at it.

Dumbing it down

“We say in the business world that you should write to an eighth-grade level,” Carlson said. “That’s not to say we want to dumb down or dilute the message — rather that we want it to be clear.”

Having that message at the ready is more important than ever in this age of social media where issues can go viral overnight. Some think farmers aren’t well adapted to this new paradigm, but based on his experience, Carlson insists otherwise.

“I know I’ve been at meetings where I look around and it’s predominantly late-middle-age farmers, maybe with a few younger ones, and the tweets about the meeting will start flying,” Carlson says. “I do think farmers are well equipped to do this.”

Still, he thinks the industry can do a better job of supporting each other in social media settings. One individual can’t be out there alone, fighting the good fight and making their own case for the continued trust of the general public, he says.

One thing the industry has to understand is that there’s definitely greater interest in agriculture in recent years, and that’s unlikely to go away. Everyone wants to know just a bit more about where their food is coming from, and it’s just a fact of life that you’re going to end up having conversations about your job, and that people are actually interested in hearing about it.

“When you go to the airport and get on a plane, be it for business or pleasure, and you start talking to your seatmate, when they ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and you respond, ‘I’m a farmer,’ you’re starting a conversation, there’s no doubt about that,” Carlson says. “There’s an intense interest in what you do as a farmer.”

It’s a double-edged sword, however. On one hand it doesn’t do anyone in agriculture any good if people think their food comes from the grocery store. But it can also mean you’re going to have to defend your practices at times, and counter a tremendous amount of misinformation.

“In those cases I think you do have to disagree, but do it respectfully,” Carlson said. “You’re not going to get anywhere by being dismissive.”

Create common ground

Instead Carlson suggests taking a tactful approach that seeks that common ground. In effect, farmers and the broad public frequently share the same goals, but differ on their diagnosis of how to get there. That’s when to bring up the great examples of farms evolving and adopting new methods very quickly. “We really do have a lot of good-news stories to share,” Carlson says.

Carlson stresses it’s important not to talk down to anyone, and Rolf Penner echoes that message, saying it’s equally important to recognize one’s own limitations. That includes remembering that it’s perfectly acceptable to say you don’t know something, and to refuse to speak on a subject you’re not yourself familiar with.

Tact is also going to be an important part of any discussion, Penner says, even when some of the statements you encounter are eye-roll inducing.

“I’ve seen people use their superior knowledge base to bully others in conversations, and I don’t think that works very well,” Penner says. “If you make someone feel stupid or embarrassed because they honestly don’t know something, they’re probably not going to come around to your side, whatever the issue is.”

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