Lessons from Pixar: Technology won’t fix a bad story

If it’s possible for companies to have “fans”, I would definitely be a “fangirl” of Pixar.

Now, I’m a self-diagnosed Disney child, so of course I love their movies. But despite loving Toy Story and Finding Nemo just as much as the next person, the true reason that I’m a fangirl is not about their products. It’s about their philosophy.

I was reading a great article this morning on Fast Company called “Building the Next Pixar”. The author interviewed several people who have since moved on from their time at the animation studio (turns out, that group is actually pretty small) and gathered their insights on what it is about Pixar’s business philosophy that makes them such an enigma in entertainment and such a gem for their employees.

You can read the entire article for the full list, but one of my favorites is “Story Drives Everything.” Now, I’ve heard this mantra from John Lasseter before – in the (great) documentary, A Pixar Story – but I love it every time I hear it. The fact is, there have been times when Disney movies weren’t very good (the 1970s-1980s, late 1990s-2000s). A lot of people tried saying that animated movies were a dying genre and that computer animation killed traditional animation. Neither is true. The real problem was that the stories they were trying to tell really weren’t all that good. If you look at the great Disney and Pixar movies – whether it’s Beauty and the Beast or Toy Story – it’s obvious that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the story.

In my line of business (advertising/marketing), we often face the same challenge. From social media to Google Glass to SEO to apps, technology to reach people with the latest product/service/cause is always changing. Print is dead (or maybe it’s not). Social media is dead (or maybe it’s not). The vehicle for the message keeps changing.

Which is when we have to remember that the technology is irrelevant, unless it helps us tell our story better.

An example of using technology to enhance a story is what we’re doing for our clients with video. Now, I work on animal health business, which tends to be quite technical and not always that interesting. But we have a great group of veterinarians and cattle producers who are using our products to help raise healthier cattle – and that’s a story worth talking about. So, we’re using video to better tell that story than maybe we could through print or social media.

Below are two of my favorite videos we’ve done for my client in the past year:

What It Takes – Prevention Works Verified

Trust Triangle – Carlton & Carlton Ranch

Whether it’s for work or if you’re a farmer/rancher trying to tell the non-farm community about what you do, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the technology available out there to communicate. Take a tip from Pixar, though, and remember to first and foremost focus on your story and making sure it’s something the people you’re trying to talk to care about. Who knows? You could have a blockbuster on your hands.

“I met a cowboy in the hallway…”

I was recently at a conference with a group of cattle ranchers. It was held at a hotel, so there were other meetings and events going on in the space. One day, while I was grabbing lunch from a buffet in the foyer, a woman (not with our group) came up to a rancher, very excited, and said “Can I take your picture? I’ve never seen a real cowboy before!”

As I smiled to myself and continued to get my food, he let her take is picture. Like most of the ranchers I know, he was very friendly and asked her where she was from.

“California,” she said.

“California!?” he replied. “Don’t they have funny people there?”

The woman laughed kindly and said, “Well, I suppose you could find Californians funny.”

But the rancher meant something else. He clarified, “No, I mean they’re funny. Don’t they all smoke a lot of weed and let the gays get married?”

Now, I want to say that this rancher wasn’t trying to be mean. But, I could tell the woman was uncomfortable, despite trying to answer his questions. As he was pressing incredulously about if she thought it was alright for “the gays” to get married, I wandered away, not really wanting to see where this was going to end (I probably should have stayed, but admittedly I tend to avoid most things confrontational).

Now, obviously I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, so I’ll give the rancher the benefit of the doubt and say it could have gotten better, but what I heard made me rather uncomfortable. This is not a post about changing what you do or don’t believe. The topics discussed could have been about Obamacare and global warming instead. No, this is about being a positive representation of the farming and ranching community.

This woman had never met a rancher before and, unfortunately, her first experience seemed to me to be an awkward one. Instead of talking about what a real cowboy does on his ranch, she was being pressed for her belief on controversial topics that she may or may not have agreed with. And I would bet she went back to her friends in their meeting and told them all about the cowboy she met in the hallway who could not get over why anyone would smoke a bunch of weed and let the gays go off and marry each other. Would she use terms like “backwoods” or “redneck”? I don’t know. Maybe (hopefully) not. But it’s a possibility, and is that really how we want to be remembered?

In agriculture, we have enough of an uphill battle with our non-farming friends in terms of their ideas around how we raise our crops and our livestock. And it’s no secret that we may have different belief sets than a lot of our urban counterparts. But let’s remember to focus on the things we have in common during initial conversations — compassion, love of family, wanting to do the right thing — and leave the people we meet with thoughts of “We’re in this together.” rather than “That guy is nothing like me.” Because when “That guy is nothing like me…” is combined with “…and I don’t like how he takes care of his animals/crops.” we’re in a losing battle.

Is agvocacy pointless?

I was a little dismayed just now when, while skimming a post on Facebook, I saw someone post this:

Someone convince me all [our] discussion about food and farms is making a difference!

Now, as someone who has spent a lot of time having discussions about food production and farming, I got really disappointed that a comment like this could be coming from one of our own. Do we really think sharing our stories and talking to people about where their food comes from is a waste of time? Are we really so jaded by bad experiences that we think it isn’t worth it?

I sure hope not.

No matter what I hope for, though, I want to hear from others. Are you a non-farmer who thinks differently about agriculture because of something you learned from talking to a farmer? Are you a farmer who is more optimistic about our future because of an experience you had with someone who doesn’t farm, but wanted to learn more about where their food came from? Please help me feel a little better about all the hard work we do to “agvocate” – because I refuse to believe that it isn’t making a difference.

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.

AgChat conference perfect for college aggies

Since I recently graduated from Michigan State (Go Green!) and just took an awesome full-time position a couple of days ago, I’d like to think that I’ve done a pretty good job at preparing for “the real world” and that I can offer some halfway decent advice to college students and recent graduates. My big piece of advice today for those college aggies out there: apply for the AgChat Foundation Agvocacy 2.0 Social Media Training Conference!

Continue reading

Flooding and agriculture – Can’t even imagine

My friend Janice has been using her blog to keep us up-to-date on the flooding of the Mississippi River over the past couple of weeks as its been affecting Memphis, where she lives. Thankfully, all of her family is alright and none of her possessions have been damaged. She’s been one of the lucky ones, though, and I’m keeping in my thoughts all of those people who have no home to go to now and are trying to figure out where to go next. I can’t even fathom what it’s like to be in that situation and hope everything turns out alright in the end.

Continue reading

Ideas from our friends in the north!

For the past two days, I have been at the North American Leaders Session, which is a meeting hosted by the Center for Food Integrity designed to bring together leaders of livestock coalitions from across North America to meet and share ideas. Now, you’ll notice that I said North America and not just…well, America. We were really lucky to be joined by a group of great folks from Canada that shared some of their projects and challenges. You may or may not be surprised, but their challenges aren’t much different than ours here in the States and they brought some awesome ideas to the table.

Now, I tweeted about the fact that the Canadian contingent is doing some amazing things related to consumer-outreach and some people on Twitter expressed interest in what those ideas were. In an effort to both share some of those things with you and as a way for me to remember them :) here’s some of the ones I found extremely interesting:

Farmers Feed Cities
This is a program mainly funded by the grain organization in Canada, but has implications for all farmers. Somewhat like the “Farmers Care” program in Michigan, Farmers Feed Cities is designed to raise awareness and education about how farming affects all of us, not just those in rural areas. What I liked most about the program was the material promotions that they’ve put together. They’ve done what I think is a great job with getting the notion of “Farmer Feed Cities” in front of a lot of people. They even gave us a window decal that I fully intend on putting in my car and a pin that’s going on my backpack! You can learn more about what they’re doing on their website, Facebook page and Twitter account.

Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC)
Throughout Canada, there are Farm Animal Councils. The Ontario branch has done a couple of projects that I thought were really neat. They have put together a 40+ page booklet about Canadian agriculture (which is not all that different from the US) called “The Real Dirt on Farming” that they’ve distributed all through the province. It goes to media members, legislators and–something a little different–doctors and other offices. The booklet covers a ton of common topics and is very good at promoting and explaining all types of agricultural production.

They also have created a website where people can take a virtual tour of farms, which range from egg producers to pig farms and orchards. Heather Hargrave, who works for OFAC, said they’d like to get to the point where they produce a modern/conventional, organic and grassfed video for each species that helps show the differences and similarities between different production systems.

Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan (FACS)
Saskatchewan’s branch of the Farm Animal Council has done some great projects promoting the message that farmers care about their animals (and subsequently the environment and their families). They partook in a very large billboard campaign throughout the province (the largest agricultural media campaign in North America) with the simple message “On our farm…we care.” Billboards featured young farmers and farm families in a variety of animal industries. They partnered with a photojournalist who took the photos, which helped the promotion of the message through journalism circles and built great partnerships with the different commodity organizations to get them done.

They also chose to put together a puppet show–Tales from the FACS Farm–that is used in elementary schools throughout the province to teach kids about animal agriculture. Adele Buettner, who works with FACS, said they hesitated at doing this because they’re not big fans of talking animals (humanizing them) in any way, but also said it ended up being a great choice because of the educational value. They work with a professional puppeteer company and put on the shows at as many schools and libraries as they possibly can during Education Week.

Sometimes we forget about how important it is to get fresh ideas to promote our industries and build trust between food producer and food purchaser. This chance to hear from other people in the US and Canada was a great opportunity for me to think about what we can do in Michigan and throughout the ag industry across the country.

Do you have any neat projects in your state or country that promote agriculture to non-farmers? What do you do? How do you secure funding? Have you done any projects that crashed and burned?!

The pride and tradition of being pure

There’s something about being involved with purebred livestock that just makes my heart swell with pride. Now, that’s not to say anything is wrong with raising commercial livestock – I’m grateful for every farmer that produces the vast majority of what I eat every day – but there’s something to be said for getting around people that have such a deep history in raising outstanding animals.

Like many others, the start of my livestock career focused mainly the county fair. Having only a market show, our goal has always been to develop the best market hog out there – usually the result of crossbreeding. Now, while I will say that I love the market hog aspect (my most favorite set of hogs – Grand Champion Pen! – were a set of crossbred “blue butts”), I developed a whole new appreciation and pride for breeding hogs when I got involved with the National Junior Swine Association, the junior leg of the National Swine Registry.

A Duroc boar from Shipley Genetics in Ohio. Animals like this can have a huge impact on the breed. (And don't you just love how you could drive a truck between his front legs!? Awesome!)

Breeding purebred animals, for me, is an entirely different mindset. Instead of breeding solely for type, you breed for characteristics that will improve the breed – and in turn, all hogs – in the long run. You want to breed Yorkshires and Landraces in a way that will add muscle and leanness to their great mothering ability. You want to add mothering ability and sound structure to the great carcass traits that tend to be associated with Durocs and Hampshires. If anyone can remember how far the pendulum swung towards market hogs that were too lean, too shallow bodied and horribly structured in the late 90s, you know how important the purebred industry can be in making our animals better – whether you’re in commercial production or seedstock production. Having that ability to make an impact is the thing that makes all the difference to me.

Yesterday I got to interview the faculty coordinator and farm manager from the purebred beef farm at MSU and they reminded me how it’s great to be a part of raising seedstock, not only for the pride in your animals, but also for the pride in your people. Throughout the history of the purebred livestock industry, there have been outstanding people that have made a difference – both for animals and for others. There are few things greater than getting to listen to older people – and it doesn’t matter if it’s in cattle, swine, sheep, horses, etc. – talk about those that made a difference in their lives when they were a livestock showman or make a difference in the lives of youth now. That’s huge for me.

As you or your children get involved with livestock – and I sincerely hope you do – I would encourage you to consider involvement in the purebred side of the industry. While both seedstock and commercial production are important for the entire industry, it’s definitely a unique experience to be a part of shaping a breed or multiple breeds. I, for one, am extremely honored to be a part of the great pride and tradition associated with being pure.

Farm Fresh Food? Yes, please!

You probably read the title and thought “Farmers markets? Locavore? Gardening?”. Well those are all great things, but I’m actually talking about the newest blog sharing farmers’ stories in Michigan! The ‘Farm Fresh Food’ blog launched March 1 and is a great way for agriculturalists in the state to share their stories.

Hosted on MLive.com, the blog will feature posts from farmers in all segments of Michigan agriculture. Topics will range from on-farm activities to how a busy mom can clean out the pantry. It’s really a great way to show the diversity of both Michigan agriculture and Michigan farmers (surprise – they’re just like most people in a lot of aspects!).

I would encourage you to check out the blog at http://blog.mlive.com/freshfood/index.html and leave your thoughts in the comments section. I can’t wait to see what people think and I look forward to all the agvocating that these farmer-bloggers will be doing!

**Note: If you’re a Michigan farmer (large or small!) who would be interested in blogging, let me know!

Is any pretty-sounding answer a good one?

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen to a speaker on campus that I found rather interesting. His name is Robert Paarlberg and he’s a political scientist at Wellesley College (he’s also done some guest lectures at Harvard). His research focuses on international agriculture and environmental policy. Out of his studies, he’s written several popular press books. Paarlberg was invited to MSU as a part of a lecture series sponsored by CANR that focused on feeding the world with science-based agriculture. I got to cover his lecture as a freelance gig, so I won’t go too in-depth about the presentation itself. However, there were a few things that struck me as…well, like I said earlier: interesting.

Dr. Paarlberg is a big believer in precision agriculture being the main way that we will feed a growing population by 2050 (9.3 billion around the world that will have to be fed, clothed and housed). He explained how precision agriculture is producing more on less land with less water, fertilizer, chemicals, tillage, etc. (the usual), while organic production, in his opinion, is too slow, labor intensive and expensive to reach that goal (although he was supportive of some organic methods).

Now, I’m not saying that I disagree with anything he said. However, I didn’t expect for the audience to be eating right out of his hands.

On first impressions, I would have figured this audience was more likely to be found at a Michael Pollan lecture than a lecture on precision ‘Big Ag’ agriculture. So, you can understand a little of my wonderment when here they were nodding and smiling at every point Paarlberg made. This struck me as extremely odd.

Does it matter what charismatic, well-spoken people say as long as what they say sounds good? Do non-farm citizens want the answer when it comes to their food, or do they really just want an answer (and preferably one from a smooth talker)? I’d be really interested in hearing what other people think. It seems to me that agriculture could lose the power of its advocates – like Paarlberg – if those advocates are just the mirror image of anti-farm advocates.