Asking the Big Questions in Ag Communications

Clara Jacob
June 4, 2013

This year, my daughter took an AP Environmental Science class in high school. The class viewed several movies “about agriculture,” such as Food, Inc., King Corn and The Future of Food.

There’s no shortage of films in this genre. But when it came time to present the other side of the story – the perspective of farmers – there were no resources available. The teacher wound up showing the TV spots and videos Paulsen produced for South Dakota Corn Growers.

While that’s certainly complimentary to Paulsen and South Dakota Corn, on a broader level, it’s a shame. With so much at stake, why aren’t farmers and agribusinesses presenting their point of view?

Maybe we’re not making documentaries more favorable to agriculture because in a hostile environment, saying anything is worse than saying nothing.

Building Trust In Agriculture, a research study published recently by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, addresses some of the problems we run up against trying to present the farmers’ perspective to consumers.

According to the report, “every major message we tested is interpreted negatively or neutrally by our target audiences.” For example, when farmers say, “We care about our land, animals and customers,” consumers hear: “You will take profitable shortcuts if and when you can.”

The study reveals that there’s a tremendous lack of trust. Consumers don’t understand today’s farming methods and are afraid of the unknown. They think most farms are operated by big businesses that will do anything to make a profit.

As ag communications professionals, what can we do to change the conversation?

The first order of business is to rebuild trust. Resist being defensive. Find and focus on shared values.

Second, we need to acknowledge consumer concerns and focus on the future. When we do tell stories, make them personal, because while consumers may not like farming, they like farmers.

Third, the study says, we need to talk less about feeding the world and making food safe, abundant and affordable. Facts don’t convince people and scare tactics don’t work.

So what’s left?

Here at Paulsen, we recommend to clients that they research target market perceptions and attitudes before establishing marketing strategy. Most of our clients tell us they know what their customers think. Yet when we do complete the research phase, clients are invariably surprised by some findings.

Going forward, as we try to overcome the negativity surrounding agriculture, research will be increasingly important – even essential – to our efforts.