Category Archives: Agriculture

Missing a friend and a great teacher

Growing up as a teachers’ kid, you quickly learn what makes a good teacher. A good teacher encourages you to think, challenges your beliefs and opinions and helps you gain more knowledge than you ever thought possible.

Chris Raines was a good teacher.

Dr. Chris Raines, 1981-2011

Now, I never sat in Chris’s classroom, but I know this is true. See, like so many others, I met Chris online through his Twitter “handle”  @iTweetMeat. From the get-go, I knew this guy was smart and witty. On so many occasions, he challenged my comments when he could have so easily passed them by. One of the first interactions I remember was when I made a comment about how farmers shoudn’t be held responsible for people who get sick from raw milk, because they knew that danger was there. Chris automatically came back at me, asking if that meant meat processors shouldn’t be held responsible for food poisoning because people should just cook it all the way? It was instances like this where he forced me to re-examine my beliefs, look at them from another angle, and learn something along the way. That’s why I know Chris was a good teacher in his “real life” job as a meat science professor at Penn State. I think he did things like that with his students every day.

Last night, Chris lost his life in a car accident and the online community of “AgChatters” and “Agvocates” lost a great friend. It’s amazing how close of a relationship you can form with someone in the digital space. I’ve spent my day randomly bursting into tears, despite the fact that my actual, in-person interactions with Chris were few. That doesn’t matter, though, because I will always remember his ability to teach us all, while making us smile at the same time. He will be sorely missed.

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Is agvocacy pointless?

I was a little dismayed just now when, while skimming a post on Facebook, I saw someone post this:

Someone convince me all [our] discussion about food and farms is making a difference!

Now, as someone who has spent a lot of time having discussions about food production and farming, I got really disappointed that a comment like this could be coming from one of our own. Do we really think sharing our stories and talking to people about where their food comes from is a waste of time? Are we really so jaded by bad experiences that we think it isn’t worth it?

I sure hope not.

No matter what I hope for, though, I want to hear from others. Are you a non-farmer who thinks differently about agriculture because of something you learned from talking to a farmer? Are you a farmer who is more optimistic about our future because of an experience you had with someone who doesn’t farm, but wanted to learn more about where their food came from? Please help me feel a little better about all the hard work we do to “agvocate” – because I refuse to believe that it isn’t making a difference.

How much of a dialogue was it?

Like what seemed like everyone else in the agriculture world, I watched the Food Dialogues conversations both online and in person last Thursday. In addition to tuning in for the Washington DC panel, I was on the St. Paul campus at the University of Minnesota for a viewing party. I’m not sure whether my expectations for the event/day were high or low. The only thing I knew was that the day would pave a path for the future of USFRA (who organized Food Dialogues) — whether that path was challenging or smooth was what needed to be determined.

I’m not going to recap the whole conversation, because I think that’s been done and you can find recap videos on FoodDialogues.com. What I will do is add to the collection of observations, hoping that input from throughout the farming and non-farming community will continue to stretch our ability to interact.

Words matter. If we’re not using the right ones, we’re not having an inclusive dialogue.

I had a friend once tell me that they hated the phrase “need to be educated.” To her, educating someone is a one-way street. You don’t know something, and by darn, the other person is going to tell you exactly what you should think. It’s not interactive.

On the same token, the term “consumer” is one that automatically separates groups into an “us versus them” mentality. This is especially true in agriculture. Consumers are “those people” who consume goods (in our case, food products) without knowing or caring where they came from. “They” know nothing about farming.

Throughout the entire Food Dialogues conversation – both across the country and in the room where I sat in St. Paul – these words and phrases were abundant. We need to educate consumers. The answer to our problems is consumer education about modern farming methods. If we just talk with consumers and share our stories, we can educate consumers about what they don’t understand.

This drives me nuts.

If we don’t place priorities on using language that is interactive and inclusive, we’ve missed the whole point of a dialogue. We haven’t listened. We haven’t learned from each other. And we won’t change anything. Words matter. As the Food Dialogues movement moves on, we have to remember that or we’re wasting our time.

Reach beyond the choir. Did we do it?

There was a great push to have farmer involvement in the USFRA dialogues, both online and in person. I think this is great. However, from my observations, what was missing throughout the entire day was those on the other side of the conversation. Farmers were in abundance both in the audience, online and on panels, but I feel like the voice of the typical, everyday food purchaser was missing. Where’s the college student who has no money, but is trying to eat more than mac and cheese? Where’s the mom who dreads taking three kids into the grocery store, but knows it needs to be done? While we had a panel of experts who were friendly to agriculture, there was a noticeably absent voice from everyday America. In my opinion, if we just continue to talk to ourselves, this “movement” is not a movement at all. Rather, it’s just us taking four hours out of our day to make ourselves feel better.

A step in the right direction, but miles to go.

Overall, I thought the Food Dialogues were a step in the right direction. The agricultural community opened themselves up to a wider audience and, I think, genuinely wants to be a part of the conversation. However, if we don’t open ourselves up to the hard topics and genuinely have a dialogue about those, we’re not going to build any bridges. Someone described coverage of controversial topics on Thursday as infomercial-like. I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The same old talking points were covered multiple times. Only once did I hear someone say, “I’m going to talk about this on a personal level…”. I’m not saying we have to have an “I’m right in using _______ (fill in the blank with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.)” answer – in fact, I’d rather we didn’t. I’m saying that we need to be able to to converse about those issues without throwing up the defensive wall and genuinely ask people why they hold the beliefs they do.

In order to continue having successful dialogues, conversations need to be filled with inclusive language and people on all sides of the food system. We also all need to have the understanding that every single one of us won’t have the same opinion — two small farmers have different ideas, two large farmers, two organic farmers, two butchers, two professors, two moms. We all come to the table with different beliefs and experiences. That’s why the root of conversations needs to be, “Why to you believe that _________?” and the question needs to be followed by genuine listening from all participants.

These are just my thoughts, though, and I know lots of people have already blogged about their feelings. Check out Michele’s and Jeff’s posts for some different opinions. What did you think about the Food Dialogues? Was it a step in the right direction? Was it the same old, same old? I’d love to hear others thoughts and keep the conversation flowing.

AgChat conference perfect for college aggies

Since I recently graduated from Michigan State (Go Green!) and just took an awesome full-time position a couple of days ago, I’d like to think that I’ve done a pretty good job at preparing for “the real world” and that I can offer some halfway decent advice to college students and recent graduates. My big piece of advice today for those college aggies out there: apply for the AgChat Foundation Agvocacy 2.0 Social Media Training Conference!

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A world of opportunities

I know I’ve been rather absent from the blog these past few weeks, but it has been absolutely crazy. This week, I will be making one of the most important decisions of my career — selecting my first job.

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Flooding and agriculture – Can't even imagine

My friend Janice has been using her blog to keep us up-to-date on the flooding of the Mississippi River over the past couple of weeks as its been affecting Memphis, where she lives. Thankfully, all of her family is alright and none of her possessions have been damaged. She’s been one of the lucky ones, though, and I’m keeping in my thoughts all of those people who have no home to go to now and are trying to figure out where to go next. I can’t even fathom what it’s like to be in that situation and hope everything turns out alright in the end.

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Ideas from our friends in the north!

For the past two days, I have been at the North American Leaders Session, which is a meeting hosted by the Center for Food Integrity designed to bring together leaders of livestock coalitions from across North America to meet and share ideas. Now, you’ll notice that I said North America and not just…well, America. We were really lucky to be joined by a group of great folks from Canada that shared some of their projects and challenges. You may or may not be surprised, but their challenges aren’t much different than ours here in the States and they brought some awesome ideas to the table.

Now, I tweeted about the fact that the Canadian contingent is doing some amazing things related to consumer-outreach and some people on Twitter expressed interest in what those ideas were. In an effort to both share some of those things with you and as a way for me to remember them 🙂 here’s some of the ones I found extremely interesting:

Farmers Feed Cities
This is a program mainly funded by the grain organization in Canada, but has implications for all farmers. Somewhat like the “Farmers Care” program in Michigan, Farmers Feed Cities is designed to raise awareness and education about how farming affects all of us, not just those in rural areas. What I liked most about the program was the material promotions that they’ve put together. They’ve done what I think is a great job with getting the notion of “Farmer Feed Cities” in front of a lot of people. They even gave us a window decal that I fully intend on putting in my car and a pin that’s going on my backpack! You can learn more about what they’re doing on their website, Facebook page and Twitter account.

Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC)
Throughout Canada, there are Farm Animal Councils. The Ontario branch has done a couple of projects that I thought were really neat. They have put together a 40+ page booklet about Canadian agriculture (which is not all that different from the US) called “The Real Dirt on Farming” that they’ve distributed all through the province. It goes to media members, legislators and–something a little different–doctors and other offices. The booklet covers a ton of common topics and is very good at promoting and explaining all types of agricultural production.

They also have created a website where people can take a virtual tour of farms, which range from egg producers to pig farms and orchards. Heather Hargrave, who works for OFAC, said they’d like to get to the point where they produce a modern/conventional, organic and grassfed video for each species that helps show the differences and similarities between different production systems.

Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan (FACS)
Saskatchewan’s branch of the Farm Animal Council has done some great projects promoting the message that farmers care about their animals (and subsequently the environment and their families). They partook in a very large billboard campaign throughout the province (the largest agricultural media campaign in North America) with the simple message “On our farm…we care.” Billboards featured young farmers and farm families in a variety of animal industries. They partnered with a photojournalist who took the photos, which helped the promotion of the message through journalism circles and built great partnerships with the different commodity organizations to get them done.

They also chose to put together a puppet show–Tales from the FACS Farm–that is used in elementary schools throughout the province to teach kids about animal agriculture. Adele Buettner, who works with FACS, said they hesitated at doing this because they’re not big fans of talking animals (humanizing them) in any way, but also said it ended up being a great choice because of the educational value. They work with a professional puppeteer company and put on the shows at as many schools and libraries as they possibly can during Education Week.

Sometimes we forget about how important it is to get fresh ideas to promote our industries and build trust between food producer and food purchaser. This chance to hear from other people in the US and Canada was a great opportunity for me to think about what we can do in Michigan and throughout the ag industry across the country.

Do you have any neat projects in your state or country that promote agriculture to non-farmers? What do you do? How do you secure funding? Have you done any projects that crashed and burned?!

Always more to learn

Sometimes when we’re in agriculture, we think we know it all. Heck, we know more about how food is grown that your typical food purchaser, right? Every so often, though, we get a slap in the face that says ‘Come down off your all-knowing high horse!’ and we’re reminded that there’s still plenty to learn, no matter if you’re conventional, organic, big, small, orange or purple (although, orange is still the best, in my opinion!).

A couple of months ago, I was offered the opportunity to do a technical article about a new ag chemical for an agricultural newspaper in the state. Of course, I said I’d do it – no problem. I’m in NAMA, I write for ANR Communications, I’ve freelanced, I’m a senior in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University — I can handle a technical piece about a new agricultural input. No sweat.

Psh, boy do I still have more to learn.

Besides realizing that a single Introduction to Crop Science class four years ago does not make me the next Norman Borlaug, I also figured out real quick that names of chemical compounds and active ingredients make about as much sense to me as Charlie Brown’s teacher. I’m really grateful there are scientists out there that understand how different chemicals and products can help farmers, but I’ll be the first to admit that I will not be joining their ranks any time soon. I will be plenty happy to continue learning as much as I can about segments of agriculture that I’m not familiar with so I can keep developing my abilities as an educator and communicator.

Have you ever run into a moment where you remembered ‘Oh, yeah. I don’t always know as much as I think I do.’ How do you get over it and learn?