How much of a dialogue was it?

Like what seemed like everyone else in the agriculture world, I watched the Food Dialogues conversations both online and in person last Thursday. In addition to tuning in for the Washington DC panel, I was on the St. Paul campus at the University of Minnesota for a viewing party. I’m not sure whether my expectations for the event/day were high or low. The only thing I knew was that the day would pave a path for the future of USFRA (who organized Food Dialogues) — whether that path was challenging or smooth was what needed to be determined.

I’m not going to recap the whole conversation, because I think that’s been done and you can find recap videos on FoodDialogues.com. What I will do is add to the collection of observations, hoping that input from throughout the farming and non-farming community will continue to stretch our ability to interact.

Words matter. If we’re not using the right ones, we’re not having an inclusive dialogue.

I had a friend once tell me that they hated the phrase “need to be educated.” To her, educating someone is a one-way street. You don’t know something, and by darn, the other person is going to tell you exactly what you should think. It’s not interactive.

On the same token, the term “consumer” is one that automatically separates groups into an “us versus them” mentality. This is especially true in agriculture. Consumers are “those people” who consume goods (in our case, food products) without knowing or caring where they came from. “They” know nothing about farming.

Throughout the entire Food Dialogues conversation – both across the country and in the room where I sat in St. Paul – these words and phrases were abundant. We need to educate consumers. The answer to our problems is consumer education about modern farming methods. If we just talk with consumers and share our stories, we can educate consumers about what they don’t understand.

This drives me nuts.

If we don’t place priorities on using language that is interactive and inclusive, we’ve missed the whole point of a dialogue. We haven’t listened. We haven’t learned from each other. And we won’t change anything. Words matter. As the Food Dialogues movement moves on, we have to remember that or we’re wasting our time.

Reach beyond the choir. Did we do it?

There was a great push to have farmer involvement in the USFRA dialogues, both online and in person. I think this is great. However, from my observations, what was missing throughout the entire day was those on the other side of the conversation. Farmers were in abundance both in the audience, online and on panels, but I feel like the voice of the typical, everyday food purchaser was missing. Where’s the college student who has no money, but is trying to eat more than mac and cheese? Where’s the mom who dreads taking three kids into the grocery store, but knows it needs to be done? While we had a panel of experts who were friendly to agriculture, there was a noticeably absent voice from everyday America. In my opinion, if we just continue to talk to ourselves, this “movement” is not a movement at all. Rather, it’s just us taking four hours out of our day to make ourselves feel better.

A step in the right direction, but miles to go.

Overall, I thought the Food Dialogues were a step in the right direction. The agricultural community opened themselves up to a wider audience and, I think, genuinely wants to be a part of the conversation. However, if we don’t open ourselves up to the hard topics and genuinely have a dialogue about those, we’re not going to build any bridges. Someone described coverage of controversial topics on Thursday as infomercial-like. I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The same old talking points were covered multiple times. Only once did I hear someone say, “I’m going to talk about this on a personal level…”. I’m not saying we have to have an “I’m right in using _______ (fill in the blank with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.)” answer – in fact, I’d rather we didn’t. I’m saying that we need to be able to to converse about those issues without throwing up the defensive wall and genuinely ask people why they hold the beliefs they do.

In order to continue having successful dialogues, conversations need to be filled with inclusive language and people on all sides of the food system. We also all need to have the understanding that every single one of us won’t have the same opinion — two small farmers have different ideas, two large farmers, two organic farmers, two butchers, two professors, two moms. We all come to the table with different beliefs and experiences. That’s why the root of conversations needs to be, “Why to you believe that _________?” and the question needs to be followed by genuine listening from all participants.

These are just my thoughts, though, and I know lots of people have already blogged about their feelings. Check out Michele’s and Jeff’s posts for some different opinions. What did you think about the Food Dialogues? Was it a step in the right direction? Was it the same old, same old? I’d love to hear others thoughts and keep the conversation flowing.

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12 thoughts on “How much of a dialogue was it?

  1. You are spot on, Amanda. We have to be honest with ourselves about that. I heard some unintentionally biased language, such as a moderator asking the panel, “Why is it important for farmers to use antibiotics?” An unbiased way to ask would have been, “Can farmers keep animals healthy without antibiotics? Why?” [or] “Why not?”

    Words do matter. It’s not easy to recognize and overcome our own biases–everybody has them–but it’s essential to successful dialogue.

    I think USFRA tried to get participation from people who don’t agree with the direction modern farming has taken. La Vida Locavore blogger Jill Richardson wrote about the Food Dialogues: “they have tried very, VERY hard to engage just about every single sustainable food activist and writer that I know.” In a comment on the same blog entry, she wrote, “I was going to actually go to the New York event they are holding, but I think I’ll skip it because I realized it’ll give me a migraine. And I’m not willing to get a migraine for these guys.” Source: http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=4897. It’s obvious she was very suspicious about the motives of USFRA. In a later blog entry, she was suspicious of the survey results: http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/4898/#41966.

    I admire USFRA for beginning the dialogue. Let’s keep it up, and learn everything we can from the first one.

  2. Ed Wesley says:

    I did not watch. I noticed that Troy Hadrick is affiliated with USFRA. That tells me all I need to know about this new propaganda machine. I notice Anita is very fond of this also, another red flag.

  3. Great points Amanda, I could not agree more. It’s apparent that we have a long days to go in agriculture before we are able to understand and speak to those outside of agriculture.

    I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is the fact that we have grown 3 generations apart from our customers that purchase our products daily. Until we take the time to connect with them and truly understand their concerns it will be tough to have meaningful dialogue.

    • Thanks, Mike, for reading my post. I agree wholeheartedly. I would encourage us, though, to move even beyond the talking point of being three generations removed from our customers. While it is a fact of what we deal with, at the end of the day, who cares? If you’re 3 generations removed, 20 generations removed or are part of a family that’s farmed since the dawn of time, it shouldn’t matter. I feel like constantly saying that you’re three generations from farming is another, more subtle way, to say, “You just don’t get it.” We all care about food and we need to have a coherent, inclusive conversation – no matter your background.

      Thanks for keeping the conversation going, as always!

      • Perhaps you miss understood me. I did not say they were 3 generations from me and need to be educated, I said I am three generations from them and need to learn more about their concerns before moving forward effectively. Point taken though.

      • Ah, okay. I see the distinction :-) It’s a talking point that’s used so often, sometimes I feel like it’s almost reached the point of being derogatory. I get what you’re saying, though.

  4. Some of our detractors were saying it was an ‘infomercial’. There were parts of the event that did have that feel to it. I hope that wasn’t intentional, but happened none the less.

    In some respects, I would have liked a bit more of a ‘knock down, drag out fight’. Not because I wanted to see people hurt each other, but because I think there were a few of the proverbial elephants in the room (like antibiotic use and confinement housing) that didn’t get addressed and should be. Perhaps next time.

    All in all, I think this was a good start. Let’s hope it continues to encourage open dialogue.

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