When Kristen Eggerling’s ancestors homesteaded Bluestem Valley Farms in 1873, who would have thought that their descendents would spend increasing amounts of time off the farm explaining the obvious to a demographic segment that didn’t exist?
Fast-forward 138 years to a Japanese grocery counter where consumers can see photos and information on the producers of the food they buy.
That kind of direct link from retail to farm fascinated Eggerling, a Nebraska corn-, soybean- and cattle-producer when she visited Japan last summer.
A volunteer agricultural ambassador, Eggerling and her family uphold a tradition of reaching out to food consumers for decades. The Japanese trip was one of many where she and husband Todd personalize American agriculture for consumers, barbequing beef and answering questions about their farm. Whether it’s in a Japanese or East-Coast supermarket, or online, she explains crop and livestock production to the general public.
“Consumers respond well when they meet us in person, realizing that farm families eat the same foods and drink the same water that they do,” says the former sixth-grade teacher. She, her husband and parents Lyle and Alice Sittler grow no-till corn and soybeans and operate a cow-calf operation in southeast Nebraska.
Eggerling’s latest agricultural ambassadorial effort is part of CommonGround, a grassroots network of farm-wife volunteers meeting consumers in person at the grocery store and other public venues to epitomize the integrity of our food supply.
Jointly sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board (USB), the program unifies modern agriculture’s voice. It hopes to include other farm groups as it expands.
The national program is launching in five states (Iowa, Indiana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky) this year with 15 volunteer spokeswomen, says Vanessa Kummer, Colfax, ND, who leads the effort. Besides chairing USB’s Communications Committee, she raises soybeans, corn and sugar beets with her husband Paul and son Blaine.
“We hope to reach millions of consumers in our first year. By the fall of 2011, the campaign hopes to span more than 20 states, with 80-150 trained CommonGround spokeswomen.”
This grassroots effort “isn’t billboards, ad campaigns, magazine pictures and ads; it’s just me being an everyday person visiting with urban consumers,” Eggerling says.
When Eggerling visits with urban consumers concerned about food safety, she shares her family’s conservation ethic, having no-tilled for more than 30 years. She links their conservation practices to their profitability: including their terracing, filter strips and field borders; their center pivot system that quantifies how much soil moisture is usable by crop according to plant-development stage; their atmometer and underground soil blocks to fine-tune water management. “It’s made a huge difference in our yields, and we irrigate a lot less,” she says. (All but one quarter-section of their corn and beans are dryland.)
“Our switch to no-till in 1980 not only conserves soil and moisture, but reduces our equipment expense.”
Bluestem Valley Farms was awarded the Sand County Leopold Conservation Award last year for its comprehensive conservation practices, land ethic and for ‘reaching beyond its borders to educate people about agriculture.’" (See http://tinyurl.com/Eggerling.)
As a former teacher, Eggerling sees parallels between her former students’ agricultural questions and those of supermarket consumers. “For example, my students thought we put all of our cattle in a barn when it snows, and assumed that livestock are treated the way they treat their pets,” she says. Once she explained that cattle live outdoors the same way that deer, raccoons and birds do, a light went on. She explained preparations for storms in terms of windbreaks and water, extra bedding and food.
The most common questions that Eggerling encounters on her public visits are why she doesn’t farm organically or raise free-range cattle, how field corn and soybeans fit into our food system, why field corn isn’t the same as sweet corn and which farm chores fall during which times of year.
“If everyone farmed in any one particular way, we wouldn’t be able to feed the population on the available land,” she explains to consumers. However, CommonGround embraces all styles and scales of agricultural production, from conventional to organic. “I find people want to learn; they’re very interested and open-minded.
“I don’t give presentations; it’s more of an off-the-cuff conversation to understand me so the consumer can make smart food choices,” Eggerling says. “The more perspective they have, the more they can put rumors into context. I explain to them how vital Best Practices are to our income, and that we, too, eat the food we produce.”
New York State Fair attendees were fascinated with the scale of the Eggerlings’ farm (1,500 acres crop ground plus 700 acres range) and the size of their cow-calf herd (250). “They come to realize we’re just normal people like they are and that we share the same concerns they do about their food,” Eggerling says. She and her husband staffed the N.Y. Beef Council booth there last year.
“We represent people in agriculture, that land and conservation ethic,” she says. “Most consumers don’t know about routine things like soil testing, for example, to preserve the environment that we love and manage.”
The rewards of representing agriculture online aren’t as concrete as corn in the bin or weed-free rows. But when Darin Grimm read this response to one of his friend’s (Ohio farmer Mike Haley) blog posts, it warmed his heart:
“I’m a mother of two living in New York and was appalled at what I saw on that video. After viewing the abuse of those helpless cows, I felt we were all being lied to by the farm industry, and that consumers are being lied to and used to the fullest. Your blog truly put my mind to rest or at least to ease. Please keep up the good work.”
Encouraging fellow farmers to tell their stories to the public online has become a second calling for this Morrill, KS, grower. Grimm describes himself online: Combining my passion for technology and focus on data/metrics with a farm operation where we raise corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, and have a cattle feedlot” (http://daringrimm.wordpress.com/ and http://twitter.com/#!/KansFarmer).
His passion for information dates back to the dawn of precision agriculture. His dedication to data brought his operation into the space age, and consults for others to use data more precisely.
“Data is all about trying to learn from numbers to be more effective. Reaching out to consumers online excites the same drive and passion because it’s the only way I know how to improve consumers’ lack of knowledge.”
Consider the Mommy bloggers. “I consider them to be a ‘key influencer’ for agriculture,” Grimm says. “They tend to be on the coasts, disconnected from agriculture. To identify accounts that shape a lot of food-buying opinions, we use a ‘wisdom of the crowds’ concept. The more people that have added you to a subject list like ag or mom, the more influential you must be in that community, and that’s why I want to track their activity.
“It’s important to understand how they feel even though you don’t agree with it if we want to be effective in educating them.”
He’s identified the top 100 Mommy bloggers and twitter users, inviting them to #Foodchat, a chance for farmers and consumers to connect, and sister chat to the ag-focused #AgChat.
Grimm is a founder and the treasurer of the AgChat Foundation (http://agchat.org), an online agricultural community dedicated to helping the non-ag public understand “what we do,” he says. He’s one of six farmers on AgChat’s 13-member board. The foundation aims to empower agriculture’s voice through social-media training. “And we represent all of agriculture, not just one segment.”
Grimm encourages crop farmers to be aware of animal-welfare issues that sometimes dominate online agricultural conversations. “Livestock is the No. 1 customer for corn and soybeans,” he says. “If we allow livestock production to be moved elsewhere, our livelihoods will suffer dramatically.
“You can look at the same issue in reverse: Why should livestock producers care about consumer GMO concerns? All segments of agriculture are interrelated,” he says.
Grimm used his data skills to identify influencer lists as a reflection of what’s being said online about vital ag topics. Always trying to raise ag’s profile online, he helped organize several efforts to make agriculture a twitter Trending Topic (most-mentioned tweets).
Grimm helped AgChat mount a foodthanks campaign, urging online ag community members to use the foodthanks#: “Share the message that farmers are ultimately where thanksgiving comes from.” By Thanksgiving, 4,665 tweets were sent by 1,216 people. A new foodthanks website received almost 2,000 visitors in just one week, thanks to social-media promotion. He notes that traffic from the foodthanks Facebook page to the foodthanks website was more than twice as high as traffic from twitter.
He encourages fellow farmers to use social-media tools and personal advocacy to reach out to “one person at a time, from the heart,” he says. “Just devote 15 minutes a day to it. With today’s smartphones, you can snap a picture or post something while you’re in line at the elevator. I don’t envision using social media as one more chore at your desk after a long day.
“It took me 20 minutes to post ‘Why I grow corn’ to my blog (http://tinyurl.com/WhyIGrowCorn) and reached almost 200 people.”
Online dialogue “doesn’t all have to be heavy conversation; a video of a Nebraska farmer’s daughter singing in the combine cab while harvesting got a lot of shares and comments; those are the things we need as well.”
Educating the non-farm public requires good listening skills, Grimm says, along with some basic video-shooting and online skills. “It’s all about building relationships,” he adds.
“With so few people directly connected to growing their food, social media is a vital component in helping them understand today’s farm business. It’s easy for the online public to attack corn farmers for being evil; but it’s hard to blatantly attack me personally for what I wrote, and that gets to the whole point of social media,” he says.
By Edith Munro
When Gordon Wassenaar first welcomed visitors to his test plots 30 years ago, he never expected it would evolve to hosting visitors from more than 70 foreign nations and Americans from all walks of life.
For every crop of corn and soybeans he’s raised since then, he’s also raised countless people’s understanding and appreciation of modern U.S. agriculture.
“We had good friends who brought German, Japanese and other groups to see the test plots, and things just grew from there,” says Wassenaar, the Prairie City, IA, grower who’s worn out a world map with the push pins for all the teams he’s hosted.
“Gordon is able to get to the meat of issues and talk about their ramifications,” says Bob Watts, a sales executive who visited the farm as part of Torch Club’s 2008 national convention. “I know that people who have little ag background get a lot from his comments. He’s enlightened people and cleared up a lot of misconceptions.”
Dick Gallagher, chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB), says Wassenaar is a great ambassador for U.S. agriculture: “He’s down to earth and tells it the way it is. I think he exemplifies our agriculture at its best.”
That’s been especially evident in Wassenaar’s leadership on the biotechnology debate. An ICPB director when the StarLink issue erupted, he was quick to see the importance of educating non-farmers about biotechnology.
By 2003, the U.S. Grains Council (USGC) was bringing 50-70 world officials – scientists, regulators, media representatives – to his farm each year to see what biotechnology in action does for agricultural productivity.
After years on the American Soybean Association board and the ICPB, he also serves on NCGA’s biotechnology working group today, traveling to Europe to talk with EU growers, journalists and consumer groups about biotechnology and hosting groups on his farm.
What keeps him going? “I believe intelligent people are willing to come to your place and listen,” he says. He cites a Kenyan woman at one of the biotech workshops who had a lot of questions. “When she left home, she was anti-biotech and now she told me she was pro-biotech,” Wassenaar says.
When it comes to consumer confidence in food safety, communicating shared values is three to five times more effective than sharing data. That’s the conclusion of peer-reviewed research by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), which tracks consumer attitudes on key food-system issues (see www.foodintegrity.org/page/research).
“Consumers still trust farmers, but they’re no longer sure that what happens today in agriculture is farming,” CFI says, based on 2009 research. “They are not willing to assign the positive attributes historically attributed to farmers to those involved in food production today. Our challenge was to find new models to reconnect a public removed from food production to the men and women who produce, process, sell and serve food today.
“Women account for 93% of food purchases, so it makes sense to design online and personal consumer-outreach efforts to them in ways that builds farmers’ personal credibility,” CFI says.
“Early-adopting consumers prefer information online sources about the food system, followed by friends and family and their local television station,” says 2010 CFI research. “Traditional media sources, including newspapers and radio, were least preferred by early adopting consumers.”