Finding the Hero in Farm Stories

Photo by Debra Murphy. Scotland IFAJ, 2014.

I sat beside a semi-retired oilfield executive on a plane recently. “I’ve got a book in me,” he said, when he found out I was a writer. “I’ve lived all over the place and done a lot.” When I asked him for an example, he talked about how he still drove his 1999 pick up, because he was too cheap to buy a new one.

Can you say buzzkill?

I was hoping for more — a bigger story, a life lesson, an anecdote, anything! Where’s the conflict between good (old technology, and no debt) and evil (new technology, and debt)? I told him the foundation of a story (at least of a news story) that people will read needs to address the questions “so what?” and “who cares?” Readers have a lot of stories to choose from. You don’t want yours getting overlooked.

storytellingFarmers who are joining the tell-your-story movement may be wondering where to start, and rightly so. You know why people like stories — they’re emotional, entertaining, and contain some kind of message. But how do you go deep to piece one together, without spending a lifetime writing it?

Well, there are many places you can go for assistance — commodity associations and advocacy groups, among them, and experts with manuals and guideposts. They’re all trying to help you get to the essence of your story, and tell it in a way that makes agriculture’s significance and its many activities more understandable.

I recently came across a template I liked, and gave it a test run with the University of Guelph 4H On Campus club. The template, which draws heavily from an infographic from Ketchum University, is found in a post from Kevin Allen on an online service called PR Daily (as in Public Relations). I admire the site’s helpful posts, and found the five-point skeleton it presented for telling a “branded” story especially intriguing for agriculture.

First, it says, tell your story for a reason. That’s good advice. Stories are strongest when they’re prompted by something — a new development, for example, or a reaction to a new development.

And here’s another way to look at a reason to tell your story: you get to do it, instead of someone else doing it for you. And by someone else, I don’t mean your commodity association, I mean those who are not friends of, or supportive of, modern agriculture. Let them react to your story, instead of vice versa.

The second point is fascinating — give your story a hero, says PR Daily. That’s not particularly comfortable in agriculture. Farmers don’t think of themselves as heroes; rather, feeding the world is just part of their everyday job.

You are, though, a hero to a lot of people, and a take-away point is that your story can be about how you’re looking after one of humans’ most basic needs. Just one person — you — not all of agriculture. Others can tell their own story. Just concentrate on yours, and you look like a hero without even trying.

Now having a reason and a hero, start your story with a conflict. Conflicts don’t have to be people fighting – they can be conflicting thoughts or approaches. For example, the old versus the new, like the 1999 pickup. Like the conflict between production costs and consumers’ expectations about the cost of food. Like the conflict between abundant food and not enough food. Conflict drives the news, and gives a story more pizzazz. How are you as a producer helping address some conflict society faces? Positioning yourself as being helpful is always a winner, although those who are ideologically opposed to your approach to food production will likely not see your solutions in a winning light.

Content-wise, the final point is evoke emotion…and how can a farm story miss? How can a story about what goes into helping feed the planet not evoke emotion?

Add some photos, and you’ve hit a home run — stories can be told with words and with supportive pictures that illustrate what you do, how you do it and why you do it.

Once the story is complete, deploy the viral power of social media to get it out. Many farmers are already very good at this, very good at using the likes of Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Instagram and other tools to communicate. Tell your story on a blog and on Facebook, drive people to it with Twitter and show photos of your farm and production with Instagram. It’s all free, and people on the other end of it are waiting to hear from you.

“Using these principles, PR pros will see how an effective brand messaging can fit in,” says author Allen.

And so will farmers.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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