Building Community At America's Table

Meal Post

Meal Three: An open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin

– written by Ellen

Recently, Grant and I enjoyed a late second dinner with two conventional diary farmers at Telegraph in Chicago. One farmer is from the Central Valley of California — he uses rBST. The other from the very northwest tip of Washington — he doesn’t use rBST because it is not legal where he farms. Their names, Ray Prock and Robert Smit.

Or, quite possibly Serious Joe and his sidekick, Sir Crack ’em Up.

Ray, along with his other sidekick, Mike Haley, is all about Big Ag — but he’s going a little rogue, though he refers it to as “bleeding edge.” Ray and Mike are the guys who reached out to me and Grant in the comments of a blog I wrote in reaction to experiencing the public relations stylins’ of the USFRA and, actually, those two amazing men were the catalyst for us starting One Hundred Meals.

Like most of Big Ag, Ray realizes that his side is hitting some rather critical points of total communication failure and that something needs to be done to stem the tide of fear that is raging through headlines.

Unlike most of Big Ag, Ray (and Mike!) tend to believe that what really needs to be done is not hitting talking points and managing a conversation — what really needs to be done is that Big Ag needs to start listening.

Having been on the receiving end of Ray’s listening, I have to say I agree. Which is why my Meal Three post is, really, an open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin.


Dear Big Ag:

“The science doesn’t support that.”

That’s the response, outta the box, by most Agvocates when peeps like me get scared about food.

If you’re curious, this is how it all looks from our side:

We suddenly discover the absolute grossness that is pink slime, overlay that with pictures of downed cows being pushed around by forklifts and we freak out about what the hell is going on in the beef industry in general — how can we believe the desperate-seeming corporate drone on the news who demands that it is scientifically safe and just go buy it, damn it or our plants will close! Really? Good! What the hell are you doing in that plant you don’t let anyone in, anyway? You seem scary!

You see, we get upset when we see pictures of cute little pigs in tiny filthy cages — how can we believe the monster who tells us it is better for the pig, scientifically, than roaming around outside? Wait, what? Pigs have the intelligence of a three year old, I wouldn’t make my dog live in a cage and my dog isn’t even close to that smart! Plus, I heard you want to regulate the farmers who do keep pigs outside, you’re obviously a greedy bastard! You seem scary!

And guess what — we don’t really believe the bunch of data  tossed in our faces about how safe the American food supply is when we read reports of people dying from tainted cantaloupe. That cantaloupe was an edge case, you say — Tough Crap! It’s what is in the news and so that’s what I know. The big Ag messaging points mean nothing to me when People. Are. Dying.

Rational? Probably not. But reality? Yes. And that is the thing, you, dear Agvocates, need to start dealing with – reality. My reality. The science you try to shove down my throat may in fact be true — as a communication strategy, it ain’t working.

Let’s break it down: I assume the Agvocates are offering up their little science nugget because they want to respond to an emotional reaction with a proveable fact. “Oh,” I assume they are thinking, “if I just tell them that the science doesn’t support their fear and then point them to a source I know will support my statement, they’ll get it and we can all move on.”

Folks, this is the epitome of bad PR — no matter how fancyass your PR firm is that is writing up your talking points.

Here’s what that PR firm should be telling you, for all the money you are spending on them: effective communication isn’t just about getting your point across. Effective communication is about understanding what the other person is thinking so you can get your point understood.

I am sure this is really frustrating for Agvocates. They feel beat down. They feel attacked. Some even are attacked, really, their farms have been burned. Logic, it would seem, should win out, no? NO!

Natasha Godard, star of Meal One, boils it down to what she calls “The Plane Crash Problem.”

Scientifically, airline travel is statistically safer than car travel by an order of magnitude. And yet, far more people are afraid to fly than they are to hop in the car. I, for one, drive a scooter around busy urban streets I know are teeming with texting, tweeting drivers — embarrassingly without a helmet a lot of the time. And yet, I am near catatonic when it comes to flying. It’s a matter of familiarity and because, she commented, humans are not very good at assessing real risk.

So, to extrapolate this to farming, I am a big frightened wussie when it comes to milk. I buy my milk from a family farm down in Central Illinois that is committed to minimally processed milk. (In fact, I visited that farm recently at Chef Camp!). I buy it because it is deliciously good milk but I also buy it because rBGH frightens the hell out of me.

But during my meal with Natasha, I found out that, quite possibly, there is scientifically nothing to fear in rBGH. The hormones, apparently, are species specific so my body can not even absorb or deal with it — I’ll politely say it is basically treated like fiber by the body, if you get my drift. I’m still investigating and learning (and my feelings are starting to lean toward the fact that the real problem with milk is the intensive farming methods, but not at all the rGBH issue) but, and this is the important point, I still have this lingering sense of doom when I even look at a carton of commodity milk.

That’s right. Doom. I can not buy it, even if I am desperate. (I find coffee undrinkable without milk and I must have coffee every morning in order to achieve functioning human being status.)

Natasha offered up a telling statement, the idea that “people don’t know what they’re doing to that cow over there but it seems scary.”

So, what’s Big Ag to do?

  • Shut. Up. and Start. Listening.
  • Stop assuming every conversation is an opportunity to hear what I say just so you can know how to respond. Start assuming it is an opportunity to understand what I think and why.
  • Start honoring the fact that I need to understand the world through my own prism (which is a rather complete lack of scientific knowledge) before I can make space in my head for even thinking about yours.
  • Fire the old school PR firms that hand you talking points and beat messaging strategy into your heads. Give more work to the PR visionaries that craft a strategy of listening.
  • And, finally, respect the fact that what you are doing to that cow over there seems scary to me — and that until you fully embrace my feelings about the matter as relevant, you are going to seem like the enemy.

Remember, at the end of the day we sustainable advocates don’t need to listen to you — really. We could just let the headlines dominate the conversation and, because all those headlines are so very scary sounding and will always be since that is what sells newspapers, slowly but surely conventional ag will have to make concessions to our side. Slowly but surely we’ll get rid of every speck of pink slime and every GE salmon and anything that might give our kids allergies. It doesn’t even matter if the reports are factual because the media will report it anyway and the real story will unravel under the onslaught of fear.

Really, I think you guys know this to be true and that is why you are all rushing around tossing sweet-looking farmers from Nebraska in our faces. Because you know you are facing a public relations nightmare that you might not be able to contain if you don’t do something significant now.

If you want a different outcome. If you want us to, at the end of the day, start understanding you — or possibly even supporting you — you need to back off with the proselytizing and start listening.

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Meal Two: Learning From the Dark Woods

written by Grant

A long day visiting a farm is supposed to end with a campfire. The guitar comes out, maybe a harmonica (hey, I packed mine!) and you sing a verse or two of every song you know into the wee hours watching flames turn to embers.

The first day of Chef Camp at Spence Farm ended with a walk in the woods.

In the dark.

We donned headlamps and carried flashlights, following Marty, Kris and Will into their 40 acres of woods. Diverse farms often have woods and in this case the woods, nearly as wild as when the Kickapoo Indians lived in it, represents twenty-five percent of their farmstead. They carefully harvest from it – paw paws, stinging nettles, maple sap and more.

On this night, we all harvested from it; we harvested a peacefulness and knowledge.

Deep into the woods, we stopped in a clearing and Kris asked us to turn off our flashlights and listen. The sliver of moon offered little light. Fireflies darted about. And it was beautiful to just listen to the world. The sounds were magical, and they opened a door for Kris to speak softly to us about the aesthetic of their farm. Spence Farm has been in the family for 182 years and is the oldest farm in Livingston County. It is scattered with small buildings that each speak to their purpose – a chicken coop, a duck coop, an old schoolhouse for teaching visitors, a rescued smokehouse, a sugar house Will uses to make maple syrup. There are fields of course, but to the Spences, the woods are also a vital part of their farm, part of their aesthetic vision of a sustainable farm and lifestyle for the three of them.

Who stands in the woods in the dark and describes their farm as having an aesthetic!? Kris, Marty and Will do.

And how did such talk affect me?

It gave me this to think about – I get worked up in my effort to promote change in our food system. I go easily into argue and debate mode, trying to convince farmers they should farm differently, that pesticides and herbicides and GMOs and heavy antibiotic use are wrong. That we need labeling. And this activism is both energizing and sapping sometimes. And there’s a certain amount of angriness and negativism in it too.

But there could be another way to affect change. You could form community of like-minded people and gently, quietly do what you feel is right.

Can small farms feed the world?

Kris: “I don’t care – I’m feeding my community.”

GMOs?

Marty: “It’s not natural – animals, given the choice, would choose non-GMO from two piles of field leavings.”

Does the science support Farm Practice X?

Kris: “No science required. Our experience and that of others supports it.”

Driving home late the next night, I caught an interview with literary critic Northrop Frye on the radio. It’s interesting how my mindset from the farm tuned me in to catch this thought from him:

“I detest arguments because you’re going to lose any argument with an ideologue because you can only argue on the basis of a counter-ideology and I’m not doing that.  […] The actual technique of argumentative writing is something I avoid as far as possible because when you argue you are selecting points to emphasize and there can never be anything definitively right or wrong about an emphasis, it’s simply a choice among possibilities, and consequently an argument is always a half truth.”

 No arguing. No debate. No Science A versus Science B. No Kumbaya around the campfire. You just stand in the dark woods and choose the outcome you want.


Meal Two: A Fence May Have Two Sides. It Is Still One Fence.

– written by Ellen

The subject of GMOs came up at a friend’s house over the Fourth of July dinner table. I can’t recall the whole of the conversation, it was brief and fleeting. But I do remember the last exchange:

“… there’s a ton of scientific evidence proving that GMOs are really, really bad…” a friend at the table said.

“Actually, no there isn’t, necessarily,” I commented.

And with that, my friend picked up his plate and stormed off.

Now, I get that emotion. I was there once — not too long ago. And I’d frankly find it much easier to be there now. It is, in fact, infinitely easier to just believe what you want to believe and be done with it. To storm off. To ignore the other side. To be convinced that what you think about food is immutably right and if someone doesn’t agree then, well, who even wants to eat with that person?

But Meal Two taught me a bit about the nature of the fence and its two sides.

Let me explain.

Grant and I were lucky enough to go to Chef Camp at Spence Farm. Chef Camp is an intensive two-day immersion in the life and ideas of a sustainable farm in Central Illinois owned by Marty, Kris and Will Travis. Sustainable isn’t actually quite right — beyond sustainable is how they describe it. Or maybe a better way to describe it would be a bucolic Valhalla of a Farm in the eyes of me and Grant.

To the Travises, sustainable involves everything from the environment, to the lives of the animals, their lives, the community, financials, marketing — everything. They are striving to live a life they can enjoy and feel proud of, doing work they believe in, growing food they know is healthful in every way and as nutrient-dense as possible.

And they work hard in their community to support, foster and grow the ideas of sustainability they believe in. They foster young farmers who want to get into business selling “properly raised food” to Chicago’s chefs. One 14-year old boy in their “stable” runs a two-acre farm, Windy Knoll Produce, and sells to the likes of Rick Bayless, you should know. These people are doing good works. More than their share.

14 year-old Derek Stoller of Windy Knoll Produce

And this is the thing: While there were a lot of great speakers to hear and experiences to share (and delicious meals cooked by fellow campers who were chefs!), my biggest take-away was a talk Kris gave to kick off the weekend. I’ll call it “Fences and the Family Farm.”

This was my take-away:  There is no right way or wrong way to farm — there is the way that each farmer chooses is right for him/her and his/her farm. That’s it. They farm their way. Across the fence, their neighbor farms another. Their goal is to try to work together.

In the world according to Kris, “We may not agree with the way they do things (on the industrial farm next door), but we care about them. They are our neighbors, a part of our community, and we’re all in this together.”

Kris Travis

It is some pretty powerful thinking, when you consider that the Travis family are so sustainably pure as farmers that they could be held up as a model for all that could be right in farming in America — they do things like bring back into production Brownie beans from seeds the Kickapoo Indians gave to their own ancestors on the farm long ago and then, after growing the beans, bring a bag of them to the remaining members of the Kickapoo tribe that lives nearby.

I can’t even imagine the soul-fulfilling satisfaction of giving a piece of real heritage back to American Indians. I mean really, you’ve accomplished a lifetime of greatness with that gesture, no?

If you, dear reader, are a sustainably-minded, family farm-focused, localvorey type, The Travises are your holy grail.

And they want you to know that they really don’t judge those who choose another way of farming. I’ll toss in that maybe I shouldn’t either.

Especially when I don’t have all the facts — or worse, if all I have is skewed facts.

Know this: I am still not going to eat GMOs. I will still campaign against pesticides and antibiotics that are baked into the commodity food supply. I am confident I’ll start crying when I end up having to face an animal in confinement.

I am in no way on the fence about this stuff. But I am starting to realize that burning the fence just because I don’t like what is on the other side actually does no good.


Meal Two: Small Farm, Big Reach

written by Grant

Ellen and I were privileged recently to attend Chef Camp at Spence Farm in central Illinois and it was the coolest two days ever!

Spence is a small, diversified farm – 110 tillable acres and 40 acres of woods – selling heirloom and heritage products to Chicago restaurants and they want to reach more chefs and spread the word about the kind of farming they do. Twice a year The Spence Farm Foundation invites a dozen or so chefs, sous chefs and other restaurant people down for a couple days of farm work, cooking and learning – all in the capable hands of presenters Marty and Kris Travis. The chefs are eager to learn. I was impressed by their questions and motivation. Asked what they hoped to get out of the experience, they said things like:

  • I want tips and knowledge to educate others – my staff, my diners, the community, my kids.
  • I want to know how your product gets to my door.
  • I want to develop a stronger appreciation of your product.
  • I just want to be on a farm.

It is good to know that the chefs who feed us when we eat out are thoughtful about their sourcing and working hard to make good choices. And Marty was direct with the chefs, telling them that it’s important for them to ask tough questions of the farms they buy from and to make it clear what expectations they have.

Marty Travis

We sat under a tent most of the first day, learning from Marty and Kris Travis and their twenty year-old son Will about their farm and the methods they use. My big takeaways? Sustainability and GMOs.

Sustainability

They used the term sustainability a lot and I asked them to define it. The most important thing about their definition was that every farm is different and each must produce its own working definition of sustainable. For their part, they think the crucial components are:

  • environmental – is the farm treating the environment in a healthy way that can continue over time?
  • physical – how big is it and how diversified?
  • financial – is the farmer earning enough to stay in business?
  • community – is the farm a welcome and contributing part of its community?
  • soil and animal – given that piece of soil, how many animals will it support and will they be healthy?

How does Spence measure itself against these metrics? Well, they farm an extremely diverse group of crops and livestock in a carefully planned rotation. They farm “beyond organic”, meaning they are not certified but feel they exceed organic standards (and their soil biologist Bob Boehle backs them on this). They use no herbicides, pesticides or GM crops. They maintain 40 acres of woods. They earn a comfortable living and it is a lifestyle they love. It is clear they are a very tight-knit family team and it was impressive to see the responsibility and ease their son Will showed. He built his own sugaring house at age 14 and sells out of all his maple syrup each year even before he starts! When asked how big they felt was comfortable, they were emphatic that they don’t want their farm to be anything the three of them can’t handle. They do all the work now and expect to keep it that way – that is a very conscious part of their definition of sustainable.

Father and son harvesting

Regarding the farm’s contribution to the community, they are very careful not to simply be a niche farm that is selling to Chicago and not in tune with their neighbors. They are currently organizing a local shared garden initiative for the small town they’re near; they started the Stewards of the Land group years ago that works to help young farmers (10, 14, 17 year-olds!) get started and supports them with a farming community knowledge base; and they formed the Spence Farm Foundation which organizes on-farm trips for families, school groups and chefs to learn about farming and food.

Derek Stoller, 14 year-old farmer

GMOs

With the push to have mandatory GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) labeling in California this fall, lots of questions regarding GMOs are on peoples’ minds recently. Ellen’s been thinking and writing about them after our Meal One. Our friends at Just Farmers are blogging about whether the labeling is a good idea or not. A lengthy report from genetic engineers and scientists at Earth Open Source just came out which questions all aspects of GM safety, research and regulation. So my GMO antennae were up at Spence Farm and I have their perspective to share.

Kris and Marty are extremely thoughtful and direct. They described two piles of plant residue sitting in fields, one GM corn, say, and the other, non-GM corn. Animals would eat the non-GMO. They also say that soil microbes do not recognize GM plant residue as natural food. So why should we recognize it as food? Lastly they made the point that they do not have bug and disease issues on their farm. So GMOs don’t strike them as natural nor necessary.

Heirloom corn

They told another interesting story. There was a point years back when their land, owned by Marty’s mother, was being farmed by someone else. The family insisted that this contract farmer use non-GM crops. He resisted but had to concede since it was their land. So he farmed their land and also other property in the area. Yields on the Spence Farm were higher and they spent less money on seed. We were all incredulous to learn that despite this experiential information, the farmer was not convinced and did not implement non-GM crops elsewhere.

Why?

The Travis family and their soil consultant Bob Boehle all agreed – the answer was convenience. In their opinion, it takes less work to farm GM crops.

•     •     •

So a small, diversified, beyond organic farm can be financially viable; it can be energizing and rewarding to the farmers; it can give back immensely to its community; it can care for the land, raise its animals on pasture and provide large quantities of nutrient-dense produce and meats to the nearby marketplace. All with a drizzle of maple syrup on top! Spence Farm, it was a pleasure to meet you!