Last week was National Ag Day. The once a year recognition, which started out as a feel good day for those of us in agriculture, has turned into an opportunity to reach out and engage consumers in a positive conversation about their food supply and how it is produced. In light of the almost constant negative attacks on agriculture by activist groups and increasingly onerous regulations by government, effective use of Ag Day to deliver an accurate and positive message is critical. Farm groups are doing a better job of taking Ag Day seriously, but more needs to be done to make the message more effective and the effort more inclusive.
Officially, National Ag Day is run by the Agriculture Council of America. Formed in 1973, this council consists of representatives from major agricultural corporations, farm organizations, and media companies. The ACA is a non-profit group administered by the National AgriMarketing Association. They are based in Washington, DC which explains their decision to move National Ag Day this year. Traditionally it has been held on the first day of spring; but, since Congress was not going to be in session this week, they moved National Ag Day to March 8, just so they could have a big soiree on Capitol Hill. This is my first gripe: Ag Day should be about reaching the public not just political leaders. Having Ag Day when lawmakers were home in their district, might have given them a chance to actually connect with local farmers rather than national farm leaders.
The day before Ag Day, a national dialogue on food was held. Sponsored by the US Farmers and Ranchers Association, the program featured farmers, government leaders, and good company representatives. The dialogue was streamed on the internet, and consumers could ask questions via several social media outlets. This was a nice idea, but the program suffered from poor execution. The 90-minute presentation was as interesting as watching paint dry, and consumer interaction was limited at best. The message about agriculture was accurate and positive.
One Ag Day event that was creative and effective was put together by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and the Indiana Family of Farmers. The Tractor to Truck event capitalized on the popularity of food trucks. In the shadow of the state capitol, several local food trucks set up shop during the lunch hour. Farm groups set up special educational displays, and FFA members mingled in the crowd talking about food. Consumers came in droves to sample local food trucks; and, while they were there, they engaged in some conversations about where their food comes from. This approach is effective and opens a two-way dialogue between those who produce food and those who consume it.
Overall I would give Ag Day 2012 a C+. For the most part the message of Ag Day is still too far off target, but there are signs of improvement. While we in agriculture would like the day to be about us, the reality is most consumers don’t care about us. We need to connect with them on the food level. We must engage them in conversation about the food they eat. We need to show them we share their concerns for safe, good tasting, affordable, and responsible food production. Ag Day also needs to be more inclusive. Telling a positive story of agriculture is not just for the big companies and farm groups. Ag Day events need to include participation by local, grass fed, and organic groups. This should be one day that we put away our sniping and focus on sharing a positive, inclusive message to consumers.
Efforts to reach consumers should not be limited to just one day, but must become consistent and strategic. Efforts must also be innovative and reach consumers where they are, not where we want them to be.