I just returned from the Animal Agriculture Alliance stakeholders meeting in Kansas City, and I learned a great deal and gained even more respect for the people who grow and make our food.
Just as I did a couple of years ago, I brought a pair of bloggers with me. This time we had something very specific and special to discuss. Ilina Ewen and Lisa Frame, two of the participants of the #farmtopork project, shared their experiences and thoughts on how the agriculture industry can do more to help people understand where their food comes from. The passion and sincerity they displayed was the hit of the conference.
On its face, #farmtopork was simple. All we did was tell the story typically called "farm to fork." We assembled a group of people that resembles the customer base of the industry. We visited some farms, toured a processing plant, talked with some experts about food, and ate some of the best cuisine North Carolina has to offer. Everything we did has been done before.
But here's the thing: we did it all in one telling, in its proper order and context, with complete transparency, for a group of intelligent and thoughtful people without an agenda or axe to grind. We didn't do it for a group of reporters who are trained to focus on and report controversy. We didn't do it for people who want to see the industry fail. In short, we did it for a group of the industry's end customers.
We treated them with dignity and respect and shared our common values. We told the truth, even if it was uncomfortable. And the bloggers responded in kind.
Because that's what thoughtful, decent people do.
Lisa and Ilina were very well received. They got invitations to visit even more farms - they've both visited other farms since #farmtopork - and they were generally embraced as "agvocates" and essentially honorary members of this community. It was wonderful to see.
There were other examples of opening the barn doors, and they were all informative and valuable. I even learned about a place in Indiana I can only describe as a kind of agriculture theme park/museum/restaurant hybrid.
And yet at this conference, it was easy for one to conclude the industry focuses on the comments of its most strident critics more than the needs of its most demanding customers. I saw an industry on the defensive, one that doesn't do enough to build relationships with influential consumers or others who shape its image.
The proactive or assertive projects I learned about were targeted at those who need no persuasion: farmers or future farmers. The communications strategies for consumers were largely passive or reactive - like "what happened when the producers of a reality television show called" or "how I handled an unfair story from the media."
The farmers I met at his meeting will tell everyone their farms are run well and their animals are treated well. I believe them. And yet I also learned how hesitant farmers are to open their doors without some kind of assurance the results will be positive. They believe the media is out to get them, that new hires are potentially agri-terrorists (a new term for me), and that people shouldn't criticize them or tell them to change their practices because they don't know how farms work. These beliefs are often based on personal experience.
My response: too bad. Complaining about it will only make things worse. Start reclaiming the narrative with the audience that matters most - consumers.
Radical transparency is the new expectation of the consumer, and that won't change anytime soon. If you don't trust mainstream media, then don't use them- work with influential bloggers instead. It's not enough to open your barn doors or wait for the phone to ring. Start knocking on other doors and calling other people.
Radical transparency will get a lot harder before it gets easier. The bloggers the industry embraced last week have more questions. Tough questions. Uncomfortable questions.
They want to know how workers are treated. They want to know why some farmers still use antibiotics on entire herds of animals. They want to know why an industry that wants to be transparent also wants to make it illegal to shoot video on a farm.
They want to know why they can sit on a stage at an agriculture conference and look out at a room - and notice that the only people there who aren't white are the people clearing tables. They want to know how the people in that room can overcome the challenges it has faced to understand the perspectives of consumers in the most diverse nation on earth.
And remember, these are the people who actually like the industry.
Lisa, Ilina and the other bloggers will continue to share their stories and perspectives, and that will help the industry- but they're not interested in being mascots. The industry must build many new, meaningful relationships with people outside its industry and leverage those relationships to further isolate and discredit its critics. It must focus relentlessly on the needs of its customers. It must reach out to influential consumers before the critics do. It must set the tone and shape the story of farm to fork.