CP editorial: Fact versus value — how farmers can advocate to consumers

Farmers are told over and over that they must share their story. The word “advocate” has been a buzzword in the agriculture industry for the last decade, but when and how are producers supposed to convey this message? What do consumers need and want to hear about their food?

I traveled to Washington, D.C., to represent Missouri FFA for National Agriculture Day on March 15. More than 100 students from FFA, 4-H, National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) and Agriculture Future of America (AFA) gathered from March 13 to 15 to prepare a message to share with legislators and consumers they might encounter on Capitol Hill. We had prepared to storm the capitol to speak to Missouri’s U.S. representatives and senators.

The point of the conference was how important agriculture is to the youth and the country’s future. Most of the students had already spoken to legislators and advocated in their industry. Although I had previous experience with speaking to legislators as well, after speaking with Donna Moenning from the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), I realized that my current views on persuasion might have been a bit lacking.

According to the Center for Food Integrity, shared values are three to five times more important than presenting facts when it comes to building trust with consumers. This means agriculturalists need to change their approach in communicating all together.

For example, plenty of research and statistics say GMOs are safe to consume. So why is there such an uproar among consumers? This is because, as a majority, agriculturalists advertise the wrong things. As an industry deeply grounded in science, we tend to convey scientific evidence and fact. However, consumers place value over fact. Fact is not what consumers want to hear. Consumers want to hear farmers speak about their values and relate to them.

This is where producers come into play. Farmers need to develop a message that will speak to each consumer’s values. When thinking about what values to share, it is beneficial to start making a list of universal values that are shared as a culture. This could be anything from family time to tradition to progressive thinking. Pick a value that relates to an individual story of an experience with agriculture.

Moenning told us to develop our own value and story that we thought would speak to the widest group of consumers. My value was family and childhood memories. I told a story about going to my grandparent’s house when I was younger; I spent my time feeding bottle calves and driving the four wheeler to check on the cows.

After identifying a value and story, I needed to implement the message. The message is what’s communicated to the consumer. Perhaps the message is about the safety of GMOs or the need for organic farming. My message was about animal welfare. I had to use my story to transition into the message.

For my message, I transitioned from telling fond memories to a story about my grandfather bringing a newborn calf into his home during bad weather. A few years ago we had rough weather, and my grandfather had a newborn calf out in the pasture. Because he cared for that calf’s safety so much, he brought the calf into his own home and warmed the calf with towels and anything else he could find. He even used my grandmother’s hairdryer to warm the calf up! She did not complain about it, though, because they saved the calf from harm. Activists often claim that farmers do not care for their animals. If my grandfather did not care for that calf or think it deserved the utmost care, he would not have spent the time and effort trying to save him.

I drew the consumer in with something they cared about: family. Then I told a story to convey my message. I did not spout off facts or show statistics. These can be helpful at times, but only if the consumer is able to trust. Above all else, advocating must be a conversation. Before sharing their story, farmers should always listen, ask and then share.

Listen to the person’s viewpoints and concerns about food production without judgment. Ask questions to encourage dialogue, and show them you want to understand their point of view. When you understand where the person is coming from, it is easier to speak to the value that is causing the concern. At this point, tell them what points you agree with so you can begin on common ground. Then share the value that will make a connection with the consumer; the story will show you care and get the message across.

Alexa Nordwald

About the Author Alexa Nordwald

Hi, my name is Alexa Nordwald, and I am currently a freshman at the University of Missouri majoring in science and agricultural journalism. I hail from about five hours southeast of Columbia in the small town of East Prairie, Missouri. Although my grandparents raise Charolais cattle in Audrain County, I did not grow up on a farm. On campus I participate in Christian Campus House Ministries, Agricultural Communicators and Leaders of Tomorrow, and the professional agricultural sorority, Sigma Alpha. I also work at the University of Missour Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) and serve as a Missouri FFA State Officer.