By Mike Barnett
Get your back up. Mix it up and fight those who use agriculture as a whipping boy.
That was the battle plan advocated by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman in 2010 during his annual address to the membership in Seattle. I dubbed him the Mad Prophet of Agriculture back then.
President Stallman has mellowed a bit. And so has the tune sung by the organization and others in battling the myths and lies perpetrated about what we do.
The problem in the past, I think, was that agriculture reacted as a cornered animal when an animal welfare, food safety or environmental issue blew up. We played defense against every charge and mistruth launched against us, giving our customers reasons for doubt.
The stage has changed, as Stallman duly noted in this year’s address. There are consumers–our customers–hungry for information about the food they eat. Others will put their dogs in the fight and fill that void if farmers and ranchers stay silent.
It’s a kinder, gentler approach that can be summed up in three words.
Proactive, not reactive.
It’s not about engaging activist crazies in fire fights where everyone comes back bloodied. We can reduce their clamor by building a wall of trust with our customers. It’s as simple as talking with them on an ongoing basis, joining them in conversations about food and addressing their concerns.
Here’s Stallman’s advice:
• Build bridges with people influential in the food community, who drive opinions and are willing to engage in a conversation about food.
• Meet customers on their own turf and invite them to ours. Answer all concerns they have about food, whether the issues seem real to us or not.
• Talk about our desire to continually improve sustainability, quality and safety on the farm.
• Tell your personal story about how you use fewer resources to produce more, and let them know how you care for your land and animals.
• Be transparent. It builds trust. Share values with your customers.
To move public opinion… to counter the activists… “We must open our doors–and maybe more importantly, open our minds–to consumers and their perspectives about food and agriculture,” Stallman said.
Sage advice, President Stallman. Let’s get to work.