Editor’s Note: Talking to The Nonfarmer Consumer

As I’ve mentioned several times, my experience in the world of agricultural is humbling in the sense that I end every day learning something new. The biggest part of it is communication. At Penn State University’s Ag Progress Days last August, Paul Spooner, affiliate relations and ag communications manager with the U.S Farmers & Ranchers Alliance provided me another teachable moment.

Spooner offered a Sustainable Communications Training session where the focus was placed on one particular word: Sustainability. A simple noun – the ability to be upheld, supported or confirmed – that apparently means a lot of things to a lot of people. In a study polling consumers (a growing number of them, millennials), it was noted that no matter what people thought of sustainability, more than half agreed that it is important.

What brought Spooner to Pennsylvania was to explain to farmers their role in discussing consumers’ concerns about their product: the crops. Many of these trepidations involve how the food is grown and the farming practice in general. “The first step is acknowledging you care about the environmental impact of your farm,” Spooner explained during his presentation.

It’s important, he noted, that farmers talk about areas that they touch often: water, soil, air and habitat. Spooner also touched on how sustainability equals smart business practices and keeping the future farming generations in mind.

Spooner was clear on WHAT the message should be toward the non-farmer consumer, but the disconnect I noticed that day was the HOW. For instance, the debate that pits GMOs against conventional crop and organic has for the most part created great confusion for everyone. Documentaries such as “Food Inc.” have cast a negative connotation on GMOs. Along with many news items that move that sentiment forward, it’s tough for the general public to have a clear understanding of the American farm practice.

Especially with today’s political climate, different opinions often mean hardening stances that drive folks to talk past each other instead of to each other. The Alliance is trying to do their part with a documentary it funded, “Farmland,” that tells the story of several farmers and ranchers.

To highlight the disconnect, Spooner told the audience that film was available on Netflix and encouraged the crowd to share this with consumers. However, one gentleman had an objection on why the Alliance would put a film on a paid website instead of the traditional movie theater or television, not knowing about the studies that show millennials in the U.S. watch 2.5 times more movies on sites like Netflix and Hulu than television.

That day, it didn’t seem that that gentleman grasped the concept as Spooner would have hoped. But hope is not lost after all. As the future unfolds, our lines of communication will evolve although the methods of farming have stayed the same. But in order to reach success in the eyes of the non-farming consumer, we’ll have to face the fact that we have to meet them halfway.