While it is often easy to remember the polarizing figures that fight against modern agriculture, it is often easy to forget that most everyday consumers are making the best decisions for themselves, their families, and their farm’s sustainability, with the information they have been given. As people informed and involved with modern agriculture, it is hard to refrain from immediately jumping on your soapbox and denouncing the opinions of others. However, that is an incredible way to quickly shut down a two-way conversation with others. It is easy to become emotionally invested over something we feel so passionately about, but we must keep our audience in mind.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop hosted by the American Dairy Association North East, which discussed how to navigate informative and receptive conversations about agriculture. The conference provided me with a simple, step-by-step strategy that can be used at the grocery store, on a farm tour, or over social media to promote an informative, helpful interaction about the industry we love so dearly.
1. Be even-handed
It’s important to speak with one voice so that you put yourself on the same level as the person that you are talking to. No one likes to be spoken down to, and if the person you’re interacting with feels that way, they’re likely to stop listening before you’re able to convey fact-based information regarding agriculture. It is important for your audience to understand the “farmer-to-consumer” connection. This concept is likely more important than the information you wish to impart. Once the consumer feels like they share common ground with the farmer, it is more difficult for the consumer to alienate modern agriculture.
2. Be consumer focused, not ‘me’ focused
Due to human nature, our opinions tend to be self-focused, especially when it concerns the food we eat and feed to our families. When having a conversation about food with the consumer, we must remember to be empathetic to their decisions regarding the reasons they choose the foods they do. While we may not agree with them, but trying to understand the “why” shows that we care about their opinion. In that moment, we need to be able to differentiate our professional and personal opinions so that we can describe the correct information in a non-judgmental manner. People care more about why you do something rather than what you do. Explaining why you do what you do in agriculture removes the focus from you and directs it to the consumer. This allows you to build trust with the consumer and assists them in understand your on-farm practices.
3. Relate to the consumer
Relating to the consumer helps them understand your on-farm practices better. For example, you could run into a young mom at the grocery store buying milk. You start a conversation over the brand of milk she’s buying, and she explains to you that she buys that brand because the label says the milk contains no antibiotics. She does not want to give her children milk that contains antibiotics because that seems like unhealthy consumption. You are then able to explain that if a dairy cow needs antibiotics, they are separated from the herd, and their milk is discarded until their body has had enough time to process out the antibiotics. Much like if a new mother were to take antibiotics for a sinus infection, she would have to pump her milk and discard it until her body has had time to process the antibiotics out of her system before she could start breastfeeding her baby again. When you discuss on-farm techniques that seem foreign to the consumer, they understand it much better with a relatable analogy. Hopefully she has an “Aha!” moment about antibiotic use in dairy cows, and you’ve been able to teach a consumer something about agriculture.
4. Delivery: verbal and non-verbal
Your delivery is just as important as the message you’re delivering. Valuing another person’s opinion first with compassion and empathy will help you in a conversation much more than becoming defensive toward their opinion. Also, be sure to keep you message simple. While you may be very passionate about what you want to say and may understand it on a much deeper, scientific level, chances are that the consumer doesn’t need the deep-dive to your explanation. Non-verbal delivery is equally important, because if you don’t make yourself approachable, you’ll never get to share the information about what you love. Make sure that your posture, eye contact, and facial expressions lend to someone that is open to a civil discussion. Your patience, belief, and heart about the topic will shine through in your delivery and will hopefully leave the consumer more informed with a better feeling towards agriculture.
5. Help people come to an informed decision
Above all, help the consumer arrive to an informed decision. You won’t change the opinions of every person you encounter about agriculture. Encourage them to research the products that they support. Provide the consumer with accurate resources to facilitate future learning. Remember that they are making the best decision with the information that they’ve been given, so sharing your knowledge can provide them with a better understanding of modern agriculture.
As agriculturalists, we love to educate others and promote responsible agricultural practices. Setting yourself up for successful conversations can lead to providing consumers with accurate information and a realization of just how much agriculture can benefit our lives.
Rebecca Sherwood is Kentucky-born and Texas-raised and has worked as an editor for the USDA. She earned her degree in animal science from Texas A&M University.