Working with consumers, Miller emphasizes importance of communication in changing times
Sheridan – As agriculturalists, it is imperative that we are able to effectively communicate with the non-agriculture public, and we must utilize the opportunities we are given to tell our stories as farmers and ranchers, according to American Farm Bureau Federation Director of Media and Advocacy Johnna Miller.
Miller was a featured speaker at the 2019 Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmer and Rancher Conference. The three-day conference targeted 18- to 35-year-old farmers and ranchers and featured numerous distinguished speakers, as well as tours of local ranches and agribusinesses. The theme of the conference was “Classic Traditions, New Solutions.”
“Consumers have changed, and we have to change, too,” said Miller. “People are so far removed from the farm, and they don’t know where their food comes from.”
“Times are changing,” Miller explained. “People ask questions, and they have limitless information. The only people harmed by not communicating are farmers and ranchers.”
“We can’t deal with consumers the same way our grandparents did,” said Miller. “They stayed in their lane. The banker was trusted to run the bank, and the farmer to run the farm with no questions. That is just not the case anymore.”
Miller explained old school messages thought to be effective in the past no longer accomplish the task of communicating the story of agriculture to the public.
She brought up an example in the saying that America’s food is affordable, abundant and safe.
“If we feed people the line that our food supply is affordable, abundant and safe, the modern consumer is going to question why there are recalls and hungry people,” Miller said.
Another popular saying is that a farmer or rancher would never do a certain thing because it would hurt their bottom line. Miller said this makes it sound as though if abusing animals or polluting the environment were profitable they would do it.
Miller explained the sheer amount of information available to the general public makes it difficult for consumers to filter through false information. She said the best and most effective means for them to understand what we do is to share personal stories.
“Farmers as a group are scary and not easy to trust,” Miller noted. “Talking to someone on an individual level and hearing exactly what that individual is doing to produce a safe product and protect the environment is more effective than using broad statements.”
The key is not to be negative or defensive when people ask questions or make accusations, Miller suggested. Trust from consumers isn’t simply given by telling people to trust us. It has to be earned, she added
“We can’t approach the issue of misinformation like a bull in a china closet,” Miller stated. “Being condescending or going into it as though we are going to educate the uninformed masses will only result in people shutting down.”
“When we become aggressive or defensive, people automatically assume we are guilty of doing something wrong,” she commented.
Assuming people should be educated in agriculture topics is also unfair to them and devalues our own specialized education, Miller said.
“We can’t expect the average person to understand our profession perfectly. We don’t understand how to do heart surgery or how the dry cleaner gets the stains out of a shirt, and that is okay,” said Miller.
Conversing with EASE
To communicate effectively, the EASE method encourages farmers and ranchers to Engage, Acknowledge, Share and Earn trust, according to Miller.
If they have the chance to talk to someone at a gas station, airport or the grocery store, think about the audience, Miller noted.
As an example, men are likely to consume steak, so if producers begin by explaining they produce the cattle that make steak, the consumer is engaged and has a personal connection, opening the door for them to ask questions.
“It is extremely important that we acknowledge why consumers have questions and doubts,” said Miller. “There are people who have died, and there is bad information on the internet.”
“It’s possible to acknowledge people’s confusion without telling them they are correct,” said Miller. “Instead of just flat telling them they are wrong, offer to explain why we do something a certain way or ask them why they were confused in the first place. This is much more productive.”
Sharing personal stories and anecdotes about farming and ranching is very effective in communicating to the general public because they associate a face to where their food is coming from.
Miller mentioned a program put on by pork producers called Oink Outings, which allows the general public to meet with pig farmers and ask questions, as well as taste various pork recipes.
“The Oink Outings are effective because it proves to the public that hog farmers have nothing to hide,” she said. “They invite chefs and bloggers to come out and tour their farms, and the trust people have in the pork industry is growing because people interacted with hog farmers.”
Why it matters
In the growing age of information, it is more important than ever for ranchers to be communicating with consumers to ensure the information they are getting is straight from the source and correct, said Miller.
“Roughly 50 percent of the country trusts the agriculture industry,” Miller reported. “This is not where we need to be.”
“People are skeptical because bad news is what gets shared,” she said. “For every piece of bad news shared, the Center for Food Integrity has concluded we need four to five positive pieces of news to balance the scales.”
“As farmers and ranchers, we are the two percent of the population,” said Miller. “If we are standing by as bad news tips the scales, we are allowing the imbalance to stay.”
“Communicating is so important, even though it can seem like a chore on the list,” she commented. “Farmers have adapted to so much over the years, and if we don’t adapt to the changing consumer, we will become like the dodo bird.”
Callie Hanson is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.