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Commentary: What Not to Say on Ag Day

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This week is National Agriculture Week, a national promotion to draw the public’s attention to the importance of agriculture. Special programs will take place from Capitol Hill to local community centers. Farm organizations will crank their PR efforts into high gear to grab as much media attention as possible. There will also be special guides and talking points given to farmers on how to talk with the public about agriculture.  Some of these will be very good, while others will be a rehash of old cliches and trite phrases. Consumer attitudes and perceptions have changed, and some of the old tried and true points just don’t work anymore.  So here are a few of my suggestions on what not to say when talking to consumers about agriculture.

Don’t tell them farming is a way of life. It is; and, for those in farming, it is a cherished way of life. However, for people who have never been on a farm and don’t know a farmer, this concept means nothing.  To them it says farming is nothing more than a lifestyle choice, which is not the image we want to convey.  Instead, stress that farming today is a high-tech, high risk, capital intensive, for profit business operation.

For years now, the official Ag Day web site has stressed that agriculture is important because it provides an abundant and affordable food supply for consumers.  This is a reality with which few today can identify. The vast majority of food shoppers have never seen a food shortage, except the day before a winter storm and then only in the milk, egg, and bread rows.  Food price hikes are seldom and, for the most part, short-lived. Comparing our food spending to that of other nations is irrelevant to most people.

Likewise, talking to people about how important farmers are because they feed the world is a waste of time. While this is true, it is also true that the majority of well-fed Americans don’t really care about the world food supply. We will donate money when disaster strikes somewhere in the world, but that does not mean most folks really understand the world food supply or the role U.S. farmers play in it. A much better approach is to stress the amazing variety of food items we have in the U.S. as well as the quality and safety of the food we enjoy. This is a reality consumers can see in the store every day, and they need to understand how modern agriculture makes this possible.

Don’t get sidetracked in the organic vs. non-organic argument or the GMO, antibiotic, hormone debate. Ag Day is not the time to tackle those issues.  This is a time for agriculture to be united in our messaging. Our food supply is safe, wholesome, and heavily regulated; and, as consumers, we have the choice to buy the kind of food we want.

For goodness sake, don’t start talking about how farming is our heritage. While it is true that here in Indiana agriculture has shaped our history and communities, this simply tells consumers farming today is no longer relevant. Most people have an outdated view of what a farm is; we don’t need to reinforce that by painting a picture of American Gothic. You might want to suggest that, without agriculture, they may not have jobs.  That is because, in Indiana, agriculture contributes $31.2 billion in sales to the Indiana economy. You could also suggest that agriculture represents some amazing career opportunities and that their children might want to consider the many job openings currently available. A degree in the many of the science and technology areas of agriculture could land their children a career with more promise than Starbucks.

Good luck this week on your advocating and speaking up for agriculture.

By Gary Truitt