I’ve got a bone to pick with “agvocacy”

Lately, I’ve felt like I’ve had a burr under my saddle, in regards to agvocacy. I’ve been probably a little grouchier than warranted. Part of that is because I feel like our efforts to engage in agricultural dialogue, has plateaued. Part of it is because many people in the agriculture community operate on the same stubborn, free-spirited, willful mentality that has helped farmers and ranchers survive this long. Tenacity is an asset in some ways, a shortcoming in the other. I’m going to reach a level of candidness in this post that I generally reserve for good friends. I’m going to address the problems I see in the community’s approach to agvocacy, and I fully expect to receive some sort of challenge. I want this conversation to happen. It needs to happen.

  1. We need to stop being so conceited. Growers have gotten into the mindset that they are entitled to respect, simply because they produce goods. I know for a fact that farmers and ranchers are some of the hardest working people on this Earth, and that most things are impossible without them. However, no one likes to be strong-armed into appreciating something. Instead of saying, “You should respect me because I grow ______,” enter into a conversation as equals. The example I use to support this case is, “Your dry-cleaner cleans your clothes. Does that mean you automatically have a deep and abiding respect fo them?” Same with the people who cook your food at a restaurant, fill your cup with drink at a bar, or help you balance your finances at the accountant’s office. We need to stop operating on a sense of entitlement.
  2. We need to remember that producers are also consumers. We all have to make a trip to the grocery store at some point in time…unless, that is, you’ve figured out a way to grow toilet paper and toothpaste on tree or as a row crop. It’s time to start acknowledging that we need other sects of society just as much as they need us.
  3. We need to stop being so gosh-dang argumentative. I’m not going to go into detail about the demographics we need to target or the strategy for doing that. You need to find what works best for you. However, there is a constant issue where agriculture tends to be a little too zealous in their desire to refute others, to the point of it being a turn-off to people in the middle of the road.
  4. We need to start promoting agriculture as an entire industry, not just the products we want to sell. Corn farmers want you to use ethanol because it raises the price at which they can sell corn. Beef farmers and ranchers want you to eat beef. It’s an incredibly harmful status quo. This is just an example, but rather than a beef producer saying, “You should eat beef!” it is more beneficial for agriculture for them to open a dialogue about how meat plays a worthwhile role in a healthy nutritional balance. We need to support each other more. If we keep on this track, I worry that segmentation between producers will increase. It will be harder for people of different agricultural sects to work alongside each other for the greater good of agriculture.
  5. We need to diversify our content. If all you do is blog/write/tweet about agriculture 24/7, you eventually lose a sense of connection with the audience (unless they, too, are agriculturalists). In order to connect with consumers (remember, though, we are ALL consumers), we need to find common ground. We need to write about things that non-agriculturalists would identify with. We have massive potential in regards to building bridges, but we are so wrapped up in the one thing we are most passionate about, that we don’t necessarily know how to talk about much else. A perfect example of how to do this right is The Pioneer Woman. Ree Drummond mixes agriculture in with a very diverse blend of content. People come to read about cooking, child-rearing, home-schooling, photography, movie quotes, and dogs…and end up learning about Oklahoma cattle ranching. Another great example of this is my good friend, Janice Person. She is passionate about agriculture, especially cotton…but she also blogs about travel, current events, and culture. We could all take a page from Janice’s book.
  6. We need to admit our own shortcomings. We need to learn to say “I don’t know” when someone asks us a question we can’t answer. We need to be able to step back, look at our approach, and reassess the quality of work we are doing. Agvocates have a long battle ahead of them, and because of that, we need to make conscious efforts to do the best we possibly can. We, as a community, have a ton of talent and do a lot of things RIGHT. However, I think we all, collectively, need to be better about focusing on continuing education. Just because we learn how to blog and tweet, doesn’t mean it’s time to stop learning. In fact, that means it’s time to continue learning how to do it all better and more effectively.

Alright, I’m done on my soapbox. I can’t claim that I’m innocent of any of these things. In fact, I know I’m just as guilty as the rest of the community. And this post is not meant to be an insult to anyone; it is an honest telling of some of the roadblocks that I see for the efforts I care about. We are our own worst enemy. It’s valuable for any movement to be approachable, personable, adaptive, resourceful, and proactive. If we want to see long-term results for the work we do now, we need to continue to see our own flaws and act on them.

So, tell me: does this post offend you? Why? Do you agree with me? What could be added? What else should we consider as we work to move forward in agvocacy? Please, I beg you, share with me. This is a post written out of pent frustration, but I sincerely hope that we can open up some dialogue regarding our cause and our approaches.

Kelly M. Rivard is a college student majoring in Interactive Communications. Her family raised beef cattle and alfalfa in Illinois until she was 12 and she worked on a grain farm throughout high school and college. She has interned with the AgChat Foundation and has served on the communications committee. Currently, she works with AdFarm in Sacrmento, CA, where she dedicates herself to sharing the stories of farmers and ranchers. She can be found on Twitter at @kmrivard and she blogs at http://kellymrivard.com.

Comments

  1. Really ..she’s worked on a farm? Her family farmed? Yet, believes producers deserve no respect and should have no sense of entitlement? Find a way to physically survive on your toilet paper and toothpaste dear. Over zealous college “communications” student..there’s a reason why she’s still a student.

  2. Mace Thornton says:

    Nice commentary, Kelly. You hit a number of points that we all need to consider in communicating about and beyond agriculture, whether it is our profession, our cause or both.

  3. Well said! I have a post coming soon about engaging in the conversation even if we personally don’t agree. All consations re: ag is a good conversation. Point #4 is a passion of mine. Ag is so much more that the farm and ranch and of we don’t expand our thoughts of Ag then we are setting ourselves up to be alone on an island!

  4. Steve Duke says:

    Kelly I would agree with you on most things you have written here. The only problem I have is some times the Gov’t (or some gov’t agency) gets involved and makes some policy that can have devastating affects on any type of agriculture. Remember the possible dust control the EPA wanted to bring about a few years ago? I’m not sure all the groups of people or what politicians wanted this but several Ag groups and our own Iowan Senator Grassley invited the head EPC officials for a farm visit to show that dust control for rural Ag areas is just plain impractical. If there isn’t dust coming out the baler then you are baling “wet” hay that is possibly going to spoil if not catch fire later.
    My point is that many times we need to invite people to our operation to show how is it done just I am many time fascinated with factory tours how things are made. I know sometimes we are busy but just inviting the 4-H group along with their parents is start that I have done.
    Good job of thinking “outside the box” and good luck with the future!

  5. I totally agree with you, Kelly! Too many agvocates are keeping busy talking among themselves and not engaging consumers. They are busy complaining about legislation and not calling on their legislators. We need to be willing to listen and have conversations…not just preach! No one will follow a one-issue complainer, but they do want to talk to people who will have a dialogue.

    Some of my favorite twitter followers are people just like me–but who have never been to a Kansas cattle ranch. We connect on a personal level, and I can agvocate from time to time, and still maintain an online friendship. Give & take…listen & talk. God gave us two ears and one mouth! Think about it!

  6. Hassan Fortney says:

    I agree and I am guilty of bad mouthing other parts of AG. In Wisconsin my home town of Viroqua we have a growing community of organic producers. My father being a child of the 50’S and whenever we talk about organic my dad foams at the mouth like a rabid dog!!! But the reality is large row crops don’t work here!!! Organic also helped over a 100 farms around here to stay in operation. And it’s like y we are all consumers” it’s also a consumer driven market. People buy what they want!! Pure and simple! I feel to a proper advocate we need to be good market researchers. Good example our county grew a lot tobacco when more awareness came about the health risks, taxing etc this market was clearly dying but many producers pushed on still tried to sell a product to the brink of being bankrupt. I feel if producers listen rather than insist! And then advocacy begins!

  7. Good post, Kelly. Thoughtful and articulate. I think for most of us the dilemma is: how do we walk that fine line between being passionate (which, taken to one extreme, leads to being defensive, stubborn and argumentative) and being empathetic and understanding of others’ points of view. As someone who’s watched the style of online advocacy promoted by the AgChat group more from the outside than the inside, I’ll have to give most of the group quite a bit of credit for doing a pretty good job of this.

  8. Jason Smith says:

    Your post does not offend me, I agree with most of what you say, to an extent. As probably the newest member of the Agvocacy crowd I can say I come into this with a consumer view more than a producer view. I am not a producer but I work in agriculture, I sell farmland and recently launched our DreamDirt TV program. That said I have lived in the heart of Iowa farm country my entire life. Have an average size farm, spend everyday on farm after farm after farm. I understand the issues but my take on Agvocacy has been that it is very much a “Preaching to the Choir” type discussion. Certainly at times the consuming public is involved but many times the conversation is producer v. producer. I do believe that your post missed one thing, most people in the world do respect producers already, there is no need to go looking for it, its already there. Essentially I believe Agvocacy is after the squeaky wheel. I do believe that the situation often gets painted with to broad a brush when in fact many people do already have respect for producers and the number in that crowd is much bigger than the squeaky wheel. I have many ideas how ag can connect with the consuming public which are to indepth for a response to your post but in summary I believe the grocery store is the best place to do this. You touched quickly on other another fact that could prohibit a cohesive approach to the conversation and effort as well, what is good for one producer may not be good for another. In a world that is fighting for dollars to keep operations as profitable as possible its going to be difficult for some people to get in bed with each other.

  9. Jenny Hanson says:

    Very good points. We need to make sure we do not put ourselves on a pedestal just because we are producing food for the world. We must work to relate to people (consumers), accept their questions and criticisms, respond to them, and engage in conversations that will lead to a better understanding of agriculture in general.

  10. Kelly! Great points and I agree. I believe my blogging audience increased when I began blogging about parenting and cooking….two things many feel they can contribute to. The reader wants to relate to what you’re saying in the blog post, maybe something they can comment on by sharing their own experiences.
    I’m just starting to get this blogging thing after a year and a half! This weekend I’m attending the BlogHer conference in San Diego to meet up and network with 3,000 other bloggers. I hope to come back with fresh ideas and tips on how to increase my blogging audience….I’ll keep you updated:)

  11. It is so hard to be positive while trying to make a difference, that is probably the basic block to me. It’s truly a gift to entertain while inspiring and teaching. Yes, the tenacity and whatever orneryness that makes people in Ag stick it out thru the hard times for some miniscule reward to themselves is something that is so hard to give a value to. We’ve got to make people care about Ag, and make it real to them. There are millions of people now who have built the urban bubble around themselves and see no way out or just cannot imagine how to connect. There is no drive for them to connect it seems. A lot of it comes from Hollywood in my opinion. In the old days when people still had pleasant memories of grampa’s farm there were plenty of entertainment that related to that still. I’ve always wished for some t.v. show that would draw the public enough to be popular and sustain a following while being true to reality. But do you see any reality show about ag that people have any interest in? When you look at old Disney shows that were so fluffy and sweet, that’s about as close as it gets anymore. And most people are given no incentive to have interest in that….where does the connect come from; and in light of the repeated salmonella or whatever that make people sick because they don’t have sense enough to clean their vegetables or cook their food thoroughly, and the finger gets pointed at ag industry, not self responsibility

  12. Jason Smith says:

    Hi Kelly-
    My comment was here for 2 days and then I checked back for any responses today and mine was gone?

  13. Hi Kelly:

    First off, yes, I do feel offended by this post in some ways. I think you make some good points but they’re clouded by your rant. It seems like you’ve had some kind of interaction with farmers that has upset you. But please don’t include me with your “we.” You’re painting everyone with a broad brush and at best that’s not fair.

    I also don’t like being told what I should or must do. I think it would be more productive to offer suggestions and ideas. It is a simplistic viewpoint to think that everyone is going to get along with everyone else and that somehow all farmers will “agvocate.” I think there are different definitions for agvocacy. Mine is pretty much speaking on behalf of and for agriculture in all of its forms and types, using common sense and logic.

    I think that as your career progresses you’ll begin to understand the complexities of this great industry and why it is a challenge to not only be an agvocate but also to foster cooperation within the industry as a whole. Most farmers I know are trying to run a successful business to support their family. This is increasingly difficult in the face of burdensome governmental regulation and misinformed public opinions. But many are realizing that new tools allow them a “voice.”

    If a farmer wants to blog 24/7 about farming then I say, “Go for it!” If there are some who want to go for interactive engagement with non-farmers then they should. I don’t expect everyone to do either of these things. In fact, most won’t.

    My suggestion is to step back and look at the big picture. I think you’re focused in pretty tight on some legitimate issues but they’re not new and I really don’t think they’ll go away. But good agvocates will keep on and not get discouraged.

    I think we’re doing a pretty good job doing something that didn’t exist a couple years ago.

  14. Chuck,

    I agree, I did use a broad brush to paint this picture. It was never meant to be a case-by-case analysis of how every individual is meant to approach their agvocacy efforts. It’s a 30,000 foot view of how I feel the entire movement, as a whole, could improve. We have to be realistic of our goals here. If a farmer wants to reach out to the public effectively, they can’t blog about ag all day, every day. If they want to connect with other farmers, fantastic. However, if a blogger is blogging strictly for farmers, I don’t feel that qualifies as “agvocacy.” For me, that falls under coffeeshop social interaction more than outreach.

    This post was never, ever intended to be applied to everyone, and I think you’re short-changing me to assume that I am saying that this is how everyone should handle agvocacy all the time. I feel I am looking at the “big picture.” If we want to make a truly positive impact on the public (the public who, by the way, votes on legislation), we (being all of agriculture) needs to get over ourselves. We need to check our egos and approach agvocacy with an eye on humility, compassion, empathy, and cooperation.

    Nancy,

    I have been following BlogHer via Twitter and it looks like a fantastic time! I hope you’re having a blast and doing some great networking. I adore your blog; you have a simple way of writing about things that many people can identify with. I’ve enjoyed working with it from a KACF position, and reading it as your friend. Keep up the fantastic work, and I can’t wait to hear more about everything you’ve learned at BlogHer.

    Ed,

    Thank you! I whole-heartedly agree that ACF has done a good job of building an active effort here. We have a talented collection of folks who legitimately care about agriculture’s future. As far as the tendency to get defensive, I agree; it’s a matter of passion. I like to think that as we (all of ag) become more in-tune with the need to connect with consumers, there can be a general effort across all boards to temper that passion into a more collaborative, productive effort.

    Thanks to everyone who has commented. I appreciate your feedback and the time you took to read this post.

  15. First and foremost, I’m sorry it took so long for people’s comments to show up; I don’t run comment moderation for this blog. Secondly, thank you to everyone who left their thoughts. This opens up dialogue that needs to happen.

    Rachel, you are entitled to your opinion. Yes, farming has been a part of my life since before I could remember. My family were those pretty stereotypical dirt-poor farmers in the 80’s and 90’s. I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve ever had. I understand the lifestyle. I never said that farmers do not deserve respect; however, the sense of entitlement is harmful. To expect others to revere you simply for the job that you make a living off of, is unfair to everyone else. It is no different than a mailman expecting admiration for delivering the mail on time. This mentality that someone MUST and SHOULD respect you, especially above and beyond the normal levels of respect expected in social interaction, is the first major wall between open and cooperative communication. You may operate on your belief that farmers are entitled to reverence. I, personally, think they SHOULD be respected…but telling the public what to do, historically, has never been an effective tool for winning them over. Based on the hostility of your post, I know I won’t change your mind. And as for my status as a student, the average time it takes to get a bachelor’s degree is 4 years. I’m about to start my fourth. It isn’t a matter of life experience or even intelligence. I hardly consider any of what I said to quite as zealous as you state.

    I apologize that I don’t have time to individually address any of the other comments at the moment. I hope, even if you disagree, that this has at least got you thinking about your goals and approaches when advocating to consumers. With that said, I need to finish packing for the AgChat Agvocacy 2.0 conference. I hope you all decide to join along on the #acfc11 hashtags on Twitter. We’ll be sharing what we learn, so that we may all better represent agriculture.

    Best wishes, and have a great weekend.