How can the ever-shrinking population of farmers connect with urban consumers to get a fair hearing on the many controversial issues that are being thrown at agriculture?
“There’s only two percent of us and 98 percent non-farming consumers, so we’re a little outnumbered,” said Minnedosa, Man., farmer Neil Galbraith.
At a day-long workshop organized by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association, he and farmers, dieticians, agriculture industry professionals and foodies were led through a series of questions, exercises and scenarios designed to help farmers and others bridge the divide with the urban masses.
Workshop leader Michele Payn-Knoper, a leading American defender of the public image of farmers, told Galbraith not to get intimidated by the low number of farmers.
“You have an opportunity to make an impact,” she said.
But she warned farmers that they don’t have much time to start getting out and meeting the public. In the United States, attacks on mainstream farming from GM labelling to animal rights campaigns have reached levels of extreme caricaturing of farmers that has soured the view of many in the public.
She sees Canada about three to five years behind the U.S. in this evolution, so “it allows you to be much more proactive,” she said.
Payn-Knoper and co-leader Cami Ryan urged farmers to get active on Twitter, YouTube and social media to let people see what real farmers are like.
Payn-Knoper said anti-farmer campaigns are much less successful with members of the public if they already know some farmers and have those images in their minds before negative ones are cast at them.
“It’s about changing the reference point at the front end, so that when the crap comes out (in sensationalist campaigns), people at least go ‘you know what, farmers are good people.’ ” said Payn-Knoper.
“If we can get that question mark to come on in people’s heads and say, ‘I remember talking to (a farmer they know through social media) and I don’t quite buy that (image presented in a negative campaign).’ ”
Former federal agriculture minister Charlie Mayer, who took part in the workshop, said farmers should fight back against falsehoods spread by activists.
“We really have to challenge everybody every time they say something that disagrees with the facts,” said Mayer.
But Payn-Knoper said arguing with people is seldom effective and that trust has to be built first.
“I would encourage you perhaps to have a conversation rather than challenge people . . . We will lose if we continue to play defence and not (reach out) and if we constantly challenge,” said Payn-Knoper.
She also encouraged farmers to move away from the notion of educating people who are critical of what they do. People have the right to their opinions, but are probably open to modifying them if farmers open a window on themselves and build a connection.
“You earn the right to share facts with people, to educate them, once you’ve been able to connect with them on a real relationship level,” said Payn-Knoper.
Farmers shouldn’t think communication or relationship building is a secondary thing they can get to if they have the time or interest.
“It’s not about (public relations) fluff. It’s about business,” she said.
“I know you’d rather be taking care of your land, equipment and animals. I get it. I know that public relations is not the most comfortable thing for you and I also know that you’re stubborn, modest and independent.
“We have the character traits in our business that are not inherent to speaking up. (But) this is a best business practice you have to (take seriously.) Because you’re either going to protect your right to farm as you best see fit or it’s going to go away.”