I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer awareness and needs, as the movement to “tell your [ag] story” continues to grow. I have concerns with some of the messages I’ve seen, and some I once felt compelled to give. I’ve heard again and again that consumers must be aware of where their food comes from. And, though I’m no advocate for ignorance, I would love to ask everyone to please inform me, not just on where food comes from, but where shirts come from? And shoes? And couches? And the shaving cream in the shower? And the knife on the counter? And the diamonds in a jewelry store?
How much do we know about the material goods we buy? How much are we expected to understand?
Knowing the entire process behind every good or service provided to us is impossible, as the society we live in today is comprised largely of specialized labour. So, we look for simple ways to make decisions. Are employees treated fairly? Are the practices employed environmentally sustainable? Economically feasible? Are prices fair to everyone along the value chain?
I spent a few years as a primary producer, and all of my life as a consumer. As a farmer, I felt pressured to tell my story a certain way, and in some cases, to defend who I was and what I did. As a consumer, I’ve often feel overwhelmed, even with all the knowledge I have of the agriculture industry.
When I spoke to the Alberta division of the Canadian Agri-Business Marketing Association, I challenged everyone not to tell their story, but to share it. An effective communicator knows the importance of balance. If a farmer tells his story in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it…. Well, you get the picture.
It seems we are often too quick to defend our own practices, that we don’t realize the potential for improvement, collectively and as individuals.
Don’t get me wrong, I think highly of information transfer and decisions based on solid research. Let’s face it, we all have something to learn, and we all have something to teach.
If you’re stumped because you want to share a piece of your life but don’t know how, you’re not alone. Me too. But much of what I’ve learned in communication has been because I’ve made mistakes, and will continue to do so. When communicating a point, I always try to remind myself of the following eight points. Maybe they will help you too.
- Be charismatic – Alright, you don’t have to go all Miley Cyrus on us to get our attention. In fact, we’re more likely to communicate if we can relate to you, your life, your passion, and of course your sense of humour! Share your energy.
- Allow for dialogue – How much do you remember from your monotonous lectures in grade school or university? You probably have a better idea of how many tiles were on the ceiling than what the teacher was talking about. Now, reflect on the conversations you’ve had with your neighbours. Likely ol’ George made you think when you debated the merits of different seeding practices.
- Collaborate -Recognize that you don’t know it all. When George challenged you by saying your way of seeding was outdated, did you ask why or become defensive? And now what? Have you tried his way, and realized perhaps it had a better fit on your farm after all? It seems we are often too quick to defend our own practices, that we don’t realize the potential for improvement, collectively and as individuals.
- Realize the power of language – We watched the following video at the Youth Ag Summit last week to demonstrate the power of words.
A good communicator knows it’s not just what we say, but how we say it.
- Stay humble – A problem I have with some of the pro-agriculture messaging is that some have used them as an opportunity to gloat. I can’t speak for other consumers, but I know that this has made me feel less accepted, especially as someone who has moved away from primary production. The majority of people I’ve talked to would love to one day live on a parcel of land in the country. The rural lifestyle is already widely respected. Do we give the same respect to those who prefer to live in the city?
- Value the work of others – The majority of farmers work hard to make a living, but so do truckers, janitors, beekeepers, doctors, waiters, lawyers, clerks, electricians, etc. One occupation doesn’t feed the world. We all do.
- Respect other opinions – Remember George? His opinion was very different than yours, but ended up being entirely valid. How about Hanna, the organic farmer down the road who provides endless conversations on the opportunity for integrated pest management on your farm? And Peter, the consumer? Sure he works at a law firm in a high-rise, but he’s still your customer, and as such is completely entitled to his opinion. So, though you may think his opinion ranks alongside that of a hippie-socialist, it should still be respected.
- Stay positive (most of the time) – There’s little point in bashing other organizations, strategies or farmers. Remember the power of words? When Hanna spoke to you about increasing seeding rates to improve competition, did she say your seeding rates were ridiculously low and that conventional agriculture was the bane of the world? Or, did she say maybe this year with the good commodity prices, you’d have the opportunity to try to manage wild oat populations a different way?
I believe it was Dr. Stan Blade, CEO of Alberta Innovates BioSolutions at the Youth Ag Summit last week, who expressed a preference for referring to people not as consumers, but as citizens, instead. After all, aren’t we all consumers with something to learn?