( Photo courtesy Tim York )

I can’t think of a conference I’ve been to in recent years at which the subject of educating consumers doesn’t make its way into the program at least once. Someone is going to raise the flag for greater public understanding for agriculture and for us to tell our story. 

It’s a refrain we’ve all probably said too many times in our careers: “We just need to tell our story ... to get the facts out.”
 
The assumption is that if we educate consumers about food production, they’ll understand our perspective and support us in both the political and consumer marketplace, and also eat more fruits and vegetables — our ultimate goal. 

There’s plenty of research that suggests consumers to some degree don’t care about facts versus fiction and instead are motivated by personal values — their own gut check on issues like sustainable practices, labor issues, treatment of livestock and GMOs. 

These are serious — not to be ignored — issues to concerned consumers. In today’s world, perceptions become reality and we must shape it. 

Credibility for agriculture lies with listening to consumers and other stakeholders, acknowledging and respecting their concerns, and then adjusting best practices to address them. It’s very easy to get defensive and lapse into name-calling, wagon-circling and “us versus them” self-righteousness. 

Nowhere has this issue been more pronounced than with the GMO discussion where proponents often cite the numerous current and prospective benefits — greater crop yields to meet the needs of a growing global population, disease resistance, drought tolerance — in opposition to what is often portrayed as unwarranted fear-mongering among an agenda-driven minority. New gene editing tools are seeing similar push back.

Agriculture hasn’t cracked the code for how best to communicate science-driven achievements in a way that resonates with consumers. Science literacy is limited and we’ve seen evidence you can’t “educate” your way out of a genuine problem.

There are at least two things going on here. First, consumers continue to show more interest than ever in where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Second, they want to see genuine engagement and dialogue as the demand for a more sustainable food system plays out. Concerned consumers want their anxieties acknowledged and respected by farmers and ranchers and they want to see progress addressing their concerns. 

Storytelling can be a powerful tool to engage and connect with customers and consumers. Stories go beyond relaying facts and data. 

Credibility for agriculture lies with listening to consumers and other stakeholders, acknowledging and respecting their concerns, and then adjusting best practices to address them. It’s very easy to get defensive and lapse into name-calling, wagon-circling and “us versus them” self-righteousness. 

Storytelling can be a powerful tool to engage and connect with customers and consumers. Stories go beyond relaying facts and data. Produce grower-shippers can utilize the power of storytelling in professional meetings, social media, even weekly sales meetings. 

Stories give color to otherwise dry material and they allow people to connect with the message in a more meaningful way. Next time we go to a conference, let’s be the ones that have told our story and can share our progress.  

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative.

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