Building Community At America's Table

Posts tagged “USFRA

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.


Announcing “One Hundred Meals – Building Community At America’s Table”

written by Ellen

Recently, Grant and I had an opportunity to sit down with some “industrial farming” folks over breakfast, on the invitation of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. The group, which appears to have deep ties to Big Ag, was formed to help American farmers and ranchers of all stripes and sizes connect with the American public.

It didn’t go over very well. But, if you look in the comments, it did, in fact, start a conversation.

We learned about folks who are experimenting with half GMO corn in their field this year because the corn borer just might be extra virulent this year, since winter wasn’t winter at all. You know, we get that. Really — though we still have a lot of questions about GM crops we’d like to discuss.

We started learning a bit about the finances of big meat from a former board member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We might not agree with him — OK, we don’t agree with him — but we started feeling the need to at least understand him.

We got challenged about feeding the poor. It seems no one has any good answer about that, to be honest, but it does loom large over all our heads as the world’s exponential population growth makes the magnitudes of future peoples who will need food nothing short of staggering.

We launched discussions with an industrial dairy man about why we can’t get raw milk and while he talked a lot about safety, we talked a lot about how the dairy idea of safety and our idea of safety are two different things. And we want to know where we can turn to, maybe, get our voice heard.

And we learned that industrial farmers are often terrorized in their homes by “well-meaning” foodies who commit violence, vandalism and other hate crimes in the name of saving the food supply. Scary but true.

In other words, we started learning what the other side is thinking — and that they were, in fact, thinking — and we realized that what seems to be missing in the food dialogue is active conversation with people who don’t agree with each other.

We’re not talking about groups of people setting out to educate the other side. We definitely are not talking about getting the propaganda right. We’re talking about actual dialogue. The kind that sparks new ideas, broader thinking and maybe even builds some new communities.

Because in a world where one Obama is greenlighting GMOs while the other is promoting a family garden, we believe it might be time for all of us to take a step back and learn. Time to unravel the crazy contradictions, to wade through the misinformation and disinformation and get to the bottom of the hypocrisies we all have about our food supply.

Our goal is to at least understand where our food supply went off the rails and how we are supposed to live — and make good decisions about what we eat — within the bubbling mess.

After all, it can become a little difficult to make the right decisions when the answers to just about all the questions are murky and complicated. Heck, we’d venture that even the questions are essentially murky and complicated.

So, we decided to start a project.

The idea is pretty simple: start sorting out the questions, meet with the people in our food community that can give us some answers, experience first hand the realities of food, and build a platform for people on all sides of the conversation to come together and discuss those questions and answers.

To, really, bridge the divide and build community through One Hundred Meals.

Here’s the rundown:

  • We’re gonna eat One Hundred Meals with people who are involved in our food supply. We want to eat with GMO advocates, urban foragers working with the homeless, farmers of all stripes, policy makers, and even some regular folks.
  • Each one of those meals is designed to get us out of our comfort zone and into a learning zone — helping us stand up and face parts of our food supply we don’t want to think about but should probably know about.
  • We’ll share photos and stories from the meal, inviting all participants to weigh in and present their ideas and thoughts so that everyone has an equal opportunity to say what is on their mind.
  • We don’t know how long it will take. We have a website to build, funds to raise, plans to make and a lot of learning to do. And, since this is just a project and not our jobs, we likely won’t be racing through the meals one after another, either.
  • Our goal is to open up productive discussion. On the website, we are planning an extensive discussion platform and we’ll invite all to participate. But, we’ll also work to keep the conversation civil — so we hope you’ll join in but we also need you to add to the discussion, not just drag it down.
  • We’ll share an extensive reading list from all sides, helping our readers learn about topics holistically, instead of just from their own vantage point — an opportunity sorely missed in most everyday discourse.
  • Although we definitely have opinions, our goal for the site is to try to approach each topic as neutrally as possible and with as much humility as possible. We invite you to tell us if we veer off course.
  • We’d like to be a platform for building a community of food that helps everyone learn, grow, and hopefully, eat.

As I wrote on Backyarditarian.com, we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash Equilibrium — an expression of game theory where, in order to win, each person in food needs to make choices that contribute to everyone’s welfare.

After all, food is not a zero sum game. We either all win or, frankly, we are all going to lose.

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To read the blog post from Ellen that started it all: Just Because the Canary Is Alive…

To read more about Grant’s food learning curve: MyFoodshed