A conversation with…
Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action
Dale: What is your background?
Erin: I am from Findlay. I went to get a job in finance and ended up going abroad. I got transferred to France. I remember sitting there seeing all the French people who knew their farmers. They knew exactly where their food came from and there was a sense of pride in the food that they ate and connecting with the famers. I came back to the U.S. in finance and I was miserable. I just kept thinking I wanted to get in the food and ag business. Sometimes life takes you in different places. I worked on the 23rd floor of a high rise building and I said goodbye to this guy every day when I got off the elevator. I went to an event called “Finding life’s purpose” and guess who was speaking, that guy. I went up to him and said, “I really want a job in food and ag.’ He said he knew the checkoff CEO of the Dairy Farmers of America. and I said great, I love cheese. I never looked back and now I love what I am doing and I love working on behalf of farmers.
Dale: What do people need to know about U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action?
Erin: We do everything that is non-policy. The old organization was formed about 10 years ago when farmers said, “Hey we have to do a better job of talking to consumer public to raise awareness.” We also have to come together and work with and through the brands. The consumers have a lot of questions, but let’s face it, McDonald’s is getting the questions, they are talking to the consumers and they need help tell a better story too. We changed our name to U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action to symbolize farmers taking action on every farm across the U.S. to do what is right for our community and planet. Our job is to raise awareness to the consuming public. Can we help the consumer better understand what the farmer does every day? Do we have the right science to tell our story? How do we develop a new business model that is not necessarily policy based?
Dale: How has the organization evolved?
Erin: I started here four years ago. In 2019 we invited CEOs from across the industry to meet in a hot barn to tell them what we were doing and to create a vision for the future. We aligned on a common vision for 2030. We now have 160 CEOs who have endorsed this Decade of Ag and that has allowed us to open the door to some very complicated conversations. Last year we went to the United Nations, where CEOs, financial institutions and environmental organizations go. We went in there and said that farmers need a voice. You are talking about the environment and farmers are the eco-workforce, and the UN was leaving them out of this conversation. We opened the general assembly of the UN with comments from Anne Meis, a soybean farmer from Nebraska. We were in the climate change talks and there we really raised the awareness that farmers are doing great work and they need real investment and partnership.
OCJ: What other ways are you reaching consumers?
Erin: We try to make certain we use words the consumers use. Often our farmers talk in a different language. One of my farmers was out in his fields and he said, ‘Can you see how clean these fields are?’ To a mom clean means Clorox wipes on a countertop. They think differently about the word clean. Farmers are the original environmentalists, but we have to put what farmers do in consumer language.
We have 30 harvests a short film docudrama that has had over 2 million views. It was a featured film in the UN climate change talks. It is hard to imagine an American film showing at the UN, let alone one on agriculture. We tell the story of the American farmer through the lens of the consumer using Hollywood story-telling and language they can approach.
We also have a famer ambassador council. The farmer has to tell their own story. The consumer really cares about the environment. Think about agriculture, there is a lot of green stuff. Let’s put our strength to work. Farmers need to be the ones telling their stories. In many of the conferences I go to, my job is to open the door, be the voice for the farmer and say, “Here, meet a farmer.”
For more, visit usfarmersandranchers.org.