2010 Michigan Farm Bureau Young Farmer Leaders Conference

Well, I just got back from my first Michigan Farm Bureau Young Farmer event and…I had a blast!!  This year’s conference was held at the fabulous Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids and was an awesome opportunity to meet people and learn about how we, as young farmers, can do our best to advocate for our industry.

This year’s conference had some wonderful speakers lined up, including well-known agricultural advocate and Nebraska rancher Trent Loos.  Now that the conference is over, I think it is good to reflect on some of the things we learned:

  • You need to make sure you put a real-person behind “agriculture”.

Trent Loos told a story of how he went to a HSUS rally and one of the girls approached him and asked “Are you a real farmer?” After assuring her he was, she proceeded to say, “Wow, I’ve always thought about what I’d say if I ever actually met a farmer.”

In Michigan, 67% of consumers have not been on a farm in the last five years and 24% have never been a farm.  With that being the case, it is extremely important that, when we interact with the non-ag public, we make sure that they know we are real people.  Tell them your story.

  • Social media is a tool to share your story, but it is not the silver bullet.

Social media is a great tool for making a stand against HSUS, PETA, etc., meeting others who share your beliefs, and having dialogue with those who don’t.  However, don’t expect social media to solve all the issues in agriculture.  It is still necessary for us to be visible in our communities, talk to consumers, and learn as much as we can about what is happening in our industry.

  • Make sure you tell your story in a way people understand.

rBST? Days to 250? Pre-harvest interval?

Many times, farmers use jargon (language only we understand) like this when describing what we do on our farms.  Unfortunately, most people have no idea what any of these mean.  It is important to share your stories using common terms and descriptions.  If you can’t, make sure you constantly ask if people need clarification and be patient when explaining.  If we don’t get on the same page, change can never occur.

Overall, I am extremely optimistic about the future leaders of agriculture–both in Michigan and across the country.  We were able to learn a lot of valuable information about how to advocate for the industry and had a great time bonding with a truly amazing group of people.  I can’t wait to attend next year’s conference!

Thank you GreenStone Farm Credit Services and Michigan Farm Bureau for your generous support of the 2010 Young Farmer Leaders Conference.

Michael Pollan at Michigan State

Earlier this week, I was informed that Michael Pollan will be speaking at Michigan State University on April 12 as a part of the Wharton Center’s “World View” lecture series. It is not uncommon for the university to bring in speakers from many different areas and so, while this intrigued me, I wasn’t necessarily surprised.

That is, until I learned that the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources will be sponsoring Mr. Pollan’s presentation.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with Mr. Pollan’s work, let me give you a brief overview.  Pollan is a contributing writer for the New York Times and is the author of several best-selling books, including The Omnivore’s Dilemna, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and Food Rules. His writings cover a variety of topics about the relationship between people and food. He recently appeared on the Oprah show (where she labeled him a “food expert”) and was a consultant and co-star for the film Food, Inc. Mr. Pollan is highly critical of the agricultural industry.

Now, I’m not going to lie and say that some of the things he discusses aren’t valid. Is the rate of diabetes in children rising unnecessarily? Yes. Is America, as a country, needlessly obese? Yes. Are we buying too much junk food and not enough healthy food? Yes. Is that the fault of American agriculture and American farmers? Now, that’s where I start to have problems.

In a recent statement, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University stated that:

“When the CANR learned of the upcoming event and was approached to be a sponsor, we thought it was an opportunity to engage with Mr. Pollan in a constructive dialogue regarding agricultural issues and our collective food future.”

I am fully in favor of having a “constructive dialogue” with Mr. Pollan. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be what will happen. CANR has scheduled a seminar for the college’s students the afternoon before the lecture and another “pre-lecture event” for CANR leadership to “interact with Mr. Pollan” (whatever that may mean–maybe h’ordeuvres and champagne?). While this may give those interested in the industry a chance to converse with Mr. Pollan, it does nothing to present a well-rounded view to the hundreds of students and faculty who will sit in Cobb Great Hall of the Wharton Center. Those people will hear what he says and nothing else.

I am not opposed to Michael Pollan coming to Michigan State (and even if I was, it wouldn’t matter!). I am opposed to the College of Ag and Natural Resources supporting this presentation without the requirement of input from other representatives in the agricultural industry.

On October 15, 2009 Michael Pollan spoke at Cal Poly University in a similar situation. However, the one difference is that Cal Poly created a presentation where Pollan spoke as a part of a panel with representatives from multiple production methods. According to @SIPtheGoodLife, who attended that presentation, the panel discussion was much more interesting and much more valueable to those who attended.

I would encourage the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to pursue a panel-like event where a true dialogue can occur. Allowing CANR students to ask questions is one thing–they already understand the other side. Presenting a one-sided lecture to hundreds who don’t understand both sides–not what I would categorize as “constructive” or “dialogue”.

On a related note, I find it interesting that CANR Dean Jeffrey Armstrong refused to engage in a dialogue with a representative from PETA earlier this fall, yet supports and monetarily sponsors the presentation of another activist. Just something to think about…

Personal Reflections on Last Night’s #Foodchat

First off, I would like to say that I totally loved the idea and the thoughts that came out of last night’s #foodchat conversation.  I was so pumped to hear from consumers about their thoughts on food and definitely wasn’t disappointed.  They all gave extremely rational beliefs and were easy to talk to.  They came right out and said they’re willing to listen to all sides of issues to learn the most about their food.  I can’t say how exciting it was to see how open-minded they all were.

I also think it was a great opportunity to for the ag community to listen to consumers, versus jumping to conclusions about what they know and think.  While some strong opinions snuck in here and there, I thought everyone did a really good job of just taking in as much information as possible.  It was a unique experience and a really good one at that.  I definitely think that #foodchat should consider heavier consumer input like this in the future.

My only frustration with the format was how hard it was to get clarification on what the consumers meant.  Because the focus was so heavy on listening, it felt like no one could say anything unless the consumer tweeted it.  At one point I needed clarification about what a consumer meant by something, but I was told to keep it to myself–that the #agchat group would discuss it next week.  I felt like the term needed valid clarification from the consumer who said it, but was instead was told to sit back and be quiet.  I really try not to get offended at silly stuff like that, but it just seemed very counter-intuitive to me.

Now, I know what you’re thinking–“Amanda, if you think there’s a problem, what the heck should we do to fix it?”  Well, I don’t know that I have all the answers, but I think I have a cool idea.  I would really like to invite consumers back and have only one or two big questions (that probably has multiple parts) and create a real dialogue for the whole conversation (I think one of the problems this week is that there were just too many questions to get through).  Like for instance, “What is your opinion on subsidies?”.  Then for the conversation, the consumers would give their opinions and the #agchat group could ask clarifying questions (i.e. does it depend on who gets subsidies?, what do you think subsidies are?, why do you have ___ opinion on subsidies?).  Then, the moderator would be more in charge of making sure people are asking questions, not stating their out-right opinions and getting defensive.

I know, it may not work.  But I really would like to see a more back-and-forth conversation rather than sit-and-listen.  Excited to see what happens!

Don’t get defensive–Get back-up!

While participating in #AgChat tonight, one of the tweeps asked what tail docking was and why it was done.  I explained that tail docking (in lambs specifically, I don’t know so much about cattle) is done to prevent disease and infection forming under the tail where manure and bugs can gather.  This was what I had learned early on and I was glad he asked, instead of just assuming.

Following the chat, another of my tweeps DM’d me saying that there was no research supporting tail docking as a method of disease prevention. Really? Well, this was news to me! Later she mentioned that she was talking about cattle and she didn’t know about lambs, but I decided to do some research anyway.

A 2000 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics by M.C. Morris reports that tail docking has traditionally been used to prevent fly strike. Fly strike is “a painful condition caused by live maggots eating at the flesh of sheep”.  Despite this, they found that fly strike can be prevented without the use of tail docking with careful and frequent inspection of your flock.

It’s also important to remember that tail docking has visual reasons, too. In the show ring, tail docking is utilized to make lambs appear longer and more level.  Showmen are learning, though, the importance of retaining length on the tail as tails that are too short often lead to prolapsing, which is not desirable for the producer or the non-ag audience.

Now, see what I learned just from double-checking my previous thoughts? Sometimes we get so set in our belief system that we forget to watch research and listen to others. Next time someone challenges your practices, don’t get defensive–get back-up!  It’s always great to learn something new 🙂