Succeeding in critical conversations about agriculture

Katy Endsley, of Fairfield County, does a mock phone interview as a dairy farmer that is adding a new facility to expand the operation. She is practicing the “block and bridge” technique at the “Engage” training program coordinated by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

By Matt Reese

It is inevitable. Anyone who is involved in any type of agricultural production will be asked questions about farming and the food system at some point.

“Hi I am Jim,” the man says sitting next to you on the airplane. “I am an attorney in Chicago. What is it that you do?”

“Oh you’re a farmer, huh? Do you raise livestock with all of those steroids and antibiotics?”

Whether the farmer in question here raises corn and soybeans, chickens, cattle or backyard tomatoes, this critical conversation on a plane will help shape lawyer Jim’s perception of agriculture. This may be the only farmer Jim has ever met.

If the conversation goes well, Jim gains insight into modern agriculture and appreciation for the tremendous amount of work that goes into the food he enjoys every day. This positive impression will encourage Jim to be more willing to be supportive of farmers when he talks to his friends about his conversation on the plane, makes his food purchasing decisions or votes on an ag-related issue down the road.

If the conversation goes poorly, agriculture loses a little bit more trust from an already distrusting general public faced with opportunities to add to the regulations of their food system. Whether farmers know it or not, these critical conversations are becoming increasingly important for the future of agriculture. The key to success in critical conversations is thinking about them before they happen.

So how should the farmer respond to Jim’s question?

“Listen, don’t judge,” said Jana McGuire, with the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) based in Kansas City. “Most of us struggle with this and we get our defenses up. Control your emotions.”

Once the farmer hears Jim out and acknowledges his concerns, he needs to try and connect with Jim in terms of shared values to establish a sense of confidence with Jim. If Jim sees a commonality between himself in the farmer, he will be more confident in the farmer’s ability to properly manage a farm.

“Identify and respect their core values and when you find values you share, connect on those,” McGuire said. “Be principle driven when you define the desired outcome from your farm.”

Now there may not be much that farmers and Chicago attorneys have in common in terms of values, but chances are that there is something. The ability to support a family, integrity, honesty, competition, spirituality, fairness and personal liberty are primary American values. Even if Jim does not practice all of these values in his own life, he probably respects them and the people who uphold such virtues.

Farmers need to take some time to consider the principles and values that drive their daily decisions. These core values need to be at the core of responses to questions. Farmers also need to prepare for the inevitable tough questions and show that they are competent with the facts and figures and reasons for what they do on the farm. Combined, confidence and competence build trust.

“Confidence is about a value similarity and a commitment to do what is right,” McGuire said. “Competence is about the skills, technical capacity, science and the ability to prove your claim.”

Here is how the farmer could respond to lawyer Jim’s loaded question about antibiotics.

“Well I raise corn and soybeans and do not have any livestock, but I know it is in the best interest of any type of agricultural operator to care for the land and animals in the best possible way to maintain a viable operation to pass on to future generations. I know that on my farm I would never do anything that would harm the soils that produce my crops or the water that my family drinks. That kind of management just does not make sense from a business standpoint. What is it that you value in your business Jim?”

“The public just wants to know that you care,” McGuire said. “You have to know what is important to you and why it is important to you.”

CFI also provided some additional background for handling some of the touchy subjects that will likely arise in critical conversations.

Q: Why do I always hear about these giant factory farms? Is that what you do?

“Most everyone understands that change is constant and we need to make that connection for agriculture,” McGuire said. “And like everything in our society, food production changes every day.”

As a result of this change, farms have had to specialize and increase in size. CFI uses the example of a 1957 Chevrolet. For many, the name of that car conjures up a warm fuzzy feeling of the good old days when that hot rod ruled the road. Those cars are definitely eye-catching and possess great sentimental value, but in terms of safety, air emissions, fuel economy, performance and comforts, the ‘57 Chevy falls very far short of a 2010 model. It is much the same on today’s larger, more specialized, safer, more environmentally friendly, and more productive farms.

Farm productivity has exploded in the last few years thanks to increases in size and specialization of farms. Without the added productivity of these farms, we simply would not have enough food now or in the future.

Q: Why are farms destroying the environment?

“Producers must understand the importance of listening to these concerns, openly sharing information and demonstrating their ethical commitment by being responsible stewards of the environment,” McGuire said.

It is once again important to point out the ethical and principle-driven obligations that farmers have to care for the environment. After that, farmers can point out the extensive list of rules and regulations that they are meeting and exceeding on their farms every day to leave a better world than they found.

Q: What do you think about all of this horrible animal abuse happening on farms?

“Today’s consumers are unfamiliar with modern farming practices and they need assurance that farmers not only have the know how to produce safe food but care as much about animals as previous generations,” McGuire said.

In response to this, it is important to point out that modern agriculture is designed for the comfort, health and welfare of the animals that is essential for a successful business and that it is an ethical obligation of every individual farmer to place the highest priority on the care and health of the animals. Animals are raised in confinement for their health and safety. Livestock is treated with antibiotics only when needed to keep animals healthy and food products safe under strict guideline set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

With all of these things in mind, farmers need to come up with several broad, simple messages that need to be delivered in critical conversations. For example:

I am committed to making my community better and providing a viable future for my family on the farm by….

I am committed to producing safe and affordable food for the world’s consumers in an environmentally friendly manner by…

Once you have some core messages established, it is time to learn to communicate them. One technique, which works well with a hostile questioner or the media, is to block and bridge. Here is an example:

Q: I understand that many large farms pollute the air and water. Are you going to pollute the air and water here when you build your new barn?

A: I understand your concern and I assure you that we have taken every precaution to eliminate any possibility of such problems (this blocks the potentially problematic question and creates a bridge to the key message). I am committed to producing safe and affordable food for the world’s consumers in an environmentally friendly manner and this new building will allow me to better care for my animals and provide the safest and highest quality food.

“Deliver a values-based message in every answer and follow it up with facts,” McGuire said. “You’re in control. Remember that. Deliver your message and then stop. Remember that you can’t speak about what others feel and if you don’t know, don’t speculate.”

It is also important to understand that some people will never be convinced of anything other than what they already believe no matter what they hear from a farmer.

“Sometimes you just can’t find that common ground and that is when you gracefully bow out,” McGuire said. “Too often we waste our time and energy on people we can’t move.”

* This story is the second half of a series summarized from the “Engage” training program coordinated by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

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One comment

  1. These are great tips–they help me focus on not reacting defensively to faulty perceptions and finding ways to concisely share the values of farmers and ranchers. Thanks!

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