Lessons in Advocacy from the AgChat Cultivate and Connect Conference

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the AgChat Foundation’s 2014 Cultivate and Connect Conference in Austin, TX. I attended the organization’s Agvocacy 2.0 Conference two years ago in Kansas City and learned a lot, but I was feeling like a needed a refresher, something to get my creative juices flowing and inspire me to write (if you haven’t noticed its been a while since I last blogged).

This conference was just what I needed. After a whirlwind trip to Austin, I came home energized, my mind practically spinning with all of the ideas I gleaned from the conference. Unfortunately, I also came home to a project deadline at work and a very busy season at the farm, and all those ideas and energy had to be put on the back-burner. Life is returning to normal, though, and I’ve finally found some time to write. Forgive my delay, but the lessons learned from this conference still warrant sharing.

Lesson 1: Listen

Too often, we as farmers and advocates tell people what we think they want to know, or worse, what we think they need to know, regardless of the information they’re actually looking for. We dismiss their concerns and correct misinformation with facts, but our talking points aren’t cutting it. Instead, we might take a few minutes to listen to what people are actually asking. Then, we can address their concerns by conveying the information they’re actually interested in, and in the process we might also build a little trust.

For example, lets say a consumer asks me about milk quality. I, as a dairy farmer, might explain the concerns to my operation like reducing somatic cell counts or on-farm antibiotic testing, but what quality means to the consumer might be totally different. They may be concerned about milk’s nutritional value for their kids or the care that our cows receive. Quality doesn’t mean the same thing to every person.

Lesson 2: Be Respectful

I think respect is a problem for both sides of the conversation. In fact, I think respect is a problem for our society in general, but that is likely a topic for another time and place. Regarding the conversation about food and farming, we can only affect the consumer’s attitude by changing our own. After we listen to their questions or concerns, we need to respond in a way that does not insult their values or beliefs. Though they may be misinformed, our customers aren’t uneducated or ignorant. Being dismissive of information a person believes comes from a reliable source can strain the conversation. Providing accurate information also may not immediately change a person’s perspective, but being respectful of the fact that not everyone will see things the way that you do can help move the needle toward a more informed understanding of your perspective. If you expect consumers to respect you, you have to respect them first.

So let’s say the consumer from the example above is concerned about cow care/comfort. Instead of explaining that healthy cows produce more milk, so I’m going to take good care of them even if I’m a greedy jerk, I should probably keep in mind that last week Mercy for Animals released a video that they claimed was representative of the dairy industry as a whole. Instead of being defensive, I could explain to the person that the owners of that farm were shocked and appalled by the video as well and sent their cows to other farms immediately to protect the animals’ safety. The owners felt certain, as do I, that the farms that took those cows in (and the vast majority of dairies in this country) treat their cattle well. I might add that our two part time employees were trained to handle cattle safely and effectively as soon as they started working for us.

Lesson 3: Build Connections

Connecting is where it all comes together. When advocating, we need to remember to be human, which we obviously are (right?). Talking points and scientific facts may make sense to you, but to some they sound like the industry agenda. When you get the chance, listen to what consumers say and be respectful, as already stated, but then find common ground. Ask questions to determine the real issue and try to connect your answer to something that you both believe in or value. Connecting in this way is powerful. These days we too often get lost in the anonymity of the internet, but if you work at it real human connections can be made, even via social media.

If I ask our example consumer more about their concerns, I might find out that they think the 100 cows we milk is a lot, and they are concerned that we can’t provide individualized care that they feel the animals deserve. To that I might respond that on our farm, we usually wean calves in small groups between 2 and 6 animals (they are individually housed up to that point).  As they get older (and their specialized needs are reduced), their groups get larger.  But even in our largest group (our milking herd), our cows are cared for based on their individual needs. Each of our employees, David and myself know most of the cows by both number and name (if they have one).

By building trust in this way, at some point in my relationship or conversation with this person I might also be able to let them know that Mercy For Animals is a group with an alternative agenda of promoting a vegan lifestyle.  In order to discourage dairy consumption in general, they search out bad actors in our industry to paint a picture for the public that I believe differs from reality. If I’ve listened, been respectful and made an honest connection, I might even change the person’s mind.

Group photo at the conclusion of the conference.
Group photo at the conclusion of the conference.

My favorite thing about this conference was that it wasn’t really about educating attendees. It was about developing relationships, sharing ideas and learning from each other. If we can do the same when advocating, we might just change the tone of the food and farming conversation.