Before Adrian Schunk walked into the agriculture classroom her first day of high school, she had never really spoken in front of a group of people, nor had she ever considered speaking on a topic such as fear-based marketing and consumer misconceptions from farm to fork. But that’s just what this Michigan FFA President did at the state convention this year … and she nailed it.
In March, Schunk took home the gold in the 2017 Michigan FFA Prepared Public Speaking Contest on a topic that came to her after seeing a recent Hunts Tomato commercial touting their “GMO-free” product.
Schunk — who did not grow up on a farm, but showed swine and beef at the county fair — had already seen the knowledge gap from the farm to consumers at her high school. Often hearing conversations among her peers on topics such as GMOs being poor for your health, added hormones in chicken, and gluten-free blueberries, Schunk already had several precedents for her prose. But it was the Hunts video that set the Mason FFA student on a goal to straighten out some of these misconceptions.
“I hadn’t even considered doing a speech on the topic until this past December when I met with a mentor of mine, Burt Henry, who brought up the subject of consumer misconceptions based on food labels. The idea immediately sparked interest, and I thought about it the whole drive home. I finally had an avenue to reach consumers who were believing many, many misleading things regarding our industry,” Schunk said. “The next weekend, I was ‘headed up to Clare for our annual family holiday party.’ I saw the Hunts Tomato video, and knew this was the perfect example of the marketing tactics that are being used to influence consumer perceptions.”
Prior to this year’s state competition, Schunk had gotten practice from her local FFA chapter’s “Greenhand” Creed Speaking competition her freshman year as well as Parliamentary Procedure and Extemporaneous Public Speaking competitions at the State and National Level. The senior said FFA not only gave her invaluable skills in public speaking but also confidence, the ability to interact with business professionals, and the diligence to work towards personal goals.
While practicing her speech — a compilation of much collaboration, learning, and feedback from many community members and agriculture professionals — Schunk found many of her audience members saying afterward that they “had no idea any of this was true.”
“The speech was beginning to make a difference in the perspectives of others, and I was beginning to realize how effective it could be in educating others about our industry,” Schunk said.
Since winning at the state level, Schunk said feedback has been incredible — not necessarily because of the speech itself — but because of the industry standing behind it.
“There are numerous people in agriculture that have been saying these things for a long time, but I’ve realized just how much influence a high school student with a blue jacket can have in advocating for our industry. I think the reason that people have reacted the way that they have, is solely because of this: I am a high school student- with no financial incentive- that truly believes in the message she has for others,” Schunk said. “This makes people question if what they believe about our food system is true. This makes people realize that maybe companies have been misleading them about their food. And, I hope most, most of all, this makes them want to become more informed to find the facts about food, rather than the fear behind the marketing.”
In addition to serving as the 2017-2018 Michigan FFA State President and attending Michigan State University in the fall to study Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources Education, Schunk will also be preparing for the National competition in October and continuing to get industry input. She plans to meet with the Michigan Farm Bureau and other industry professionals about this issue; in the hopes of improving not only the speech, but also improving her ability to advocate for the industry at a public level.
“I hold a firm belief that anytime a blue jacket is worn, there is progress being made. While I do think this speech has contributed the progress of improving the public’s perception of agriculture, I also believe that is done on a daily basis by FFA members across the nation. I intended for the speech to serve as a platform to reach consumers, but I didn’t realize it would help others realize how large of an impact they can have too,” Schunk said. “I have received messages from FFA members from Arkansas to FFA Alumni in California. I hope it has made an impact- even if a small one- in the public’s eye of our industry, but I also hope it has helped FFA members realize that they have a sincere opportunity to influence others.”
It’s also a topic Schunk believes other FFA members should be vocal about.
“During this speech process, someone pointed out to me that we, as FFA members, are in a unique situation. We have no financial incentive, we have no promotion incentive, and we have no business incentive- we have only the opportunity to make a difference, if we chose to take it,” Schunk said. “I would like to encourage more FFA members to join this discussion, solely because not only is it a worthwhile cause, but it is a necessary cause. This is a message that is worth believing in; as FFA members, we understand from the moment we pull on the blue jacket, it is our responsibility to believe in the future of agriculture. I am confident, however, that the future of agriculture relies heavily on the perceptions of the consumers we feed. Consumers’ ability to accept and understand agriculture technologies, practices, and methods will be crucial in our ability to make progress.”
Here is Schunk’s award-winning speech: