The 2016 U.S. presidential election is behind us, but that hasn’t stopped the online bickering happening back and forth between Trump and Clinton supporters. The far left isn’t likely to give Trump a chance, and the conservative right has fingers in their ears to drum out the noise.
Everybody is talking and nobody is listening. Sound familiar? It should. The polarizing disconnect between one political ideology to another is eerily familiar to the widening gap between urban consumers and rural food producers.
If we look back on history and note the times where farmers and ranchers were oppressed, we would see cases like the Soviet Union. In a nutshell, simple agriculturalists were punished for achieving prosperity and successfully raising food for the nation. Consequently, when these food producers were pushed off the land and out of their homes and businesses, millions of people starved because there was no longer enough food to go around.
The cause and effect seems simple enough. Without farmers, there’s no food. It’s a rhetoric we’ve been harping on in the U.S. for decades, but since America enjoys an abundance of safe and affordable food, it’s hard to get our point across.
But seriously — would it take a famine for urban consumers to notice us? I certainly hope not. What agriculture does need, however, is a change in narrative. We’ve got the science, research and methodology down pat for producing safe, wholesome food for the world, but we can’t keep beating that same drum and expect to be heard.
We shouldn’t talk “at” our consumers. We need to talk “with” them.
So what does our consumer want to hear? I think they want a narrative. They want a story. They want to feel an emotional connection to where their food comes from.
We need to tell them about how our immigrant great grandparents crossed the pond in a journey to find success in the U.S. We need to share stories of covered wagon trains making the dangerous trek across the prairie. We need to describe the days of the Homesteader Act and the ways our ancestors tamed this wild land in order to carve out a living for themselves and their families.
We need to describe how each generation got a little bit better at producing food. Instead of just raising enough to feed one family; today one farmer can support 155! We need to tell stories of the first tractor grandpa bought. We need to share the changes that have been made on the ranch in the decades that have passed and how those improvements have helped the soil, water, livestock and wildlife.
We need to laugh together about the ideas dad brought home from college to implement on the farm. We need to share how a millennial and baby boomer get along and work side by side every day on the ranch. We need to show them how we practice environmental stewardship on a daily basis. We need to share pictures of our kids learning the ropes. We need to blast videos of our calves bellied up to the feed bunk. We need to share stories of our good days and our bad days and the lessons we learn from each. We need to detail what it takes to go from a seed in the soil to food on the plate.
There are many conversations we need to have with our consumers, but we need to meet them where they are, instead of expecting them to look at things from our point of view. They are hungry for stories. They want to learn more about where their food comes from. They want to know we are people they can trust. They want to know that we do our best to take care of the land and the animals.
It’s up to us to start the narrative. Make it effective by picturing what a day in their shoes might look like. Have a conversation that makes sense from the vantage point of New York City or San Francisco.
If we can learn one thing from this election, it’s this: yelling at each other while failing to listen and empathize with the other side just leads to further isolation and polarization. Only when we stop to listen, really hear what the other person has to say, can we start to make connections and have effective conversations.
If it feels like consumers are from Mars and ranchers are from Venus, it’s because we often lead very different lives. However, we all eat, and chances are we have more in common than we think. Find those commonalities and let’s start making a difference.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Penton Agriculture.