Monday, June 21, 2010

Warm and fuzzy is not a business plan...

A loyal reader pointed me to Urban Lehner's most recent editorial which has considerable wisdom. I had read it when it was posted but decided to take several deep breaths before commenting (for reasons outlined below).
But I also received a comment saying I was just plain wrong: The problem, this reader said, is the media's inaccurate reporting and society's gullibility in swallowing it. That this happens sometimes I do not deny. These instances, however, are but one slice of a more intricate reality.
Where this reader and I differ is on the relationship between media and society. He thinks the media leads and society follows. I think the media follows as much as it leads. It's part of society. It caters to society's concerns. It can amplify or illuminate them, but it almost never has the power to create them out of whole cloth.
Reports on pesticide runoff, for example, may raise society's awareness, but if society didn't care about the environment, the media wouldn't be so interested in the subject. A few decades ago, in less affluent, less environmentally conscious times, the reports would have made little stir and the media would have soon directed its attention elsewhere. [More well worth reading]
But as I have written in Top Producer, this righteous indignation of being misunderstood is bootless, IMHO.
Growing concern about public interference in agricultural practices, especially in animal agriculture, has prompted a remarkably uniform response from producers, organizations and associated agribusinesses: We need to “educate” consumers.

At first glance, this rather intuitive answer to the perceived threat seems logical. Obviously, those who would force us to change our operational methods are uninformed, and when shown the light will embrace the Truth. But implicit in this reasoning is the stunningly egocentric and naive presumption that once folks get to know us, they’ll like and trust us. Experience tells me it is possible folks won’t.

For my entire career, farmers have been droning about “telling the farmer’s story.” Left unexamined, this conviction that folks will be swayed by photo ops and nostalgia has become dogma.

For most farmers I have talked to, it’s a struggle to imagine this education process from the other side. Even fewer can embrace the idea—well recognized as a fundamental of psychology—that we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our motives. Convinced our motives are correct, we assume we are simply not shouting loud enough to negate contrary evidence. [ More]
But Lehner lost me as he proposed his approach.

The trap agriculture must avoid is what Kaagan calls "demonizing," the habit of lumping anyone who questions any aspect of modern agriculture into the category of "East and West Coast crazies and elitists." A parent concerned about pesticide residue isn't necessarily in league with PETA, he observes; someone who cares about the environment isn't necessarily opposed to production agriculture or a closet member of the Humane Society.
To all of which I say, Amen. If you treat those who question you or express qualms about some of your practices as enemies, you may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why not, instead, play on that underlying "warm fuzzy feeling" and let them get to know you -- and you them? Talk to them. Listen to them. Invite them to your farm.
Doesn't that sound smarter than getting into a fight with those who own a much bigger bullhorn than you do?  [My emphasis]
The words may have been a simply a poor choice - been there, done that. But I would suggest we have been "playing on that underlying warm fuzzy feeling" too long and to our own detriment. Because we were not comfortable explaining our work without evoking anachronistic imagery like windmills and shucking bees, we have arrived in this awkward moment of self-discovery.  

And here it is: we are not quaint. (I'm speaking from the perspective of an industrial grain producer).  There is nothing warm and fuzzy about my farm, including most of all, me. Nor has this a been a problem for my customers.

Let those who are uneasy with their business practices or contemptuous of consumer intelligence "play on" emotions left over from my father's time.  I prefer to be open and honest about what I do, and abide by the market verdicts on same.

The great fault of the media is not their erroneous portrayal of industrial ag, it is the suggestion that media can solve the problem. But this is to be expected. In an industry writhing in metamorphosis to God-knows-what, suggesting that words will solve producer problems is to be expected.  It is our hammer.

I applaud his advice to forsake fruitless media battles with the public, and his accurate accounting of the enemy forces opposing some of our practices.  But not for reasons of hopeless outcomes. Even now, there are among us those who can respond flexibly to consumer/public opinion and replace those who cannot. This ill wind does not blow nobody good. (That sentence is just not right, but it's the best I can do.)

I am also struck by his confidence that all we have to do is let people get to know us, and they will love us. In fact, I think this is his greatest error.  The more the public understands about my life and my advantages, the less they will be enamored, I suspect. Nor have I found farmers to be particularly ingratiating.  we're too busy telling people how wonderful we are, for one thing. Moreover, if our business plan is to be based on being liked, we have strayed far from our traditional role in the world.
Perhaps Lehner has had different experiences than mine introducing urban friends to modern agriculture.  To put it briefly, few have come away with a "warm, fuzzy feeling".  Some are reassured by the competence of today's farmers, some are disappointed at the lack of bucolic charm, and some are inexpressibly confused.
But none of them have been "played on".   

They have been told and seen the truth. I consider that fulfilling a professional and cultural responsibility, as important as producing from the land.

[Thanks, Tom]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How about an attitude of: "this is where our food comes from, if you don't like it, don't eat it."