Have a heart-to-heart with consumers: farm advocate

Farmers urged to connect with consumers online

Michele Payn-Knoper is a farm girl who stands out in a farm crowd.

In a bright blue blazer, Payn-Knoper was easy to spot among the crowd of farmers and ranchers even before she took centre stage as the keynote speaker at the Farm Leadership Council’s conference in Saskatoon last week.

And then she started kickboxing.

As a professional speaker and a farm advocate — not to be confused with an activist, she insists — Payn-Knoper hopes to not only inform but also to motivate.

And when men and women line up alongside Payn-Knoper to kick and punch, she’s drawing an allusion: that agriculturalists need to fight back against their critics who are examining issues of animal welfare, environmentalism, urban farming, organic production and biotechnology.

“I’m accustomed to being the unique one on the program,” said Payn-Knoper, who grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan.

Now based in Indiana, she’s travelled North America for more than a decade, bringing her message to farm groups with a colourful and lighthearted approach that’s different from the research, policy and production experts listed alongside her on the agenda.

Like her onstage counterparts, she brings slides full of numbers, but she’s counting Twitter followers rather than bushels per acre.

She echoes a familiar sentiment: producers must be proactive in sharing their own positive stories.

Organizations such as Farm Credit Canada and the Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan are already working on this front, but Payn-Knoper believes the onus is also on producers to connect with consumers on a “heart level.”

And in her view, the way to their hearts is, at least in part, through Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

While some may be skeptical, Payn-Knoper said there are millions of eyes online. There’s no better way to communicate, she added.

She has developed her own audience online, fostering conversations, dubbed #AgChat, that have allowed her to talk about agriculture with thousands more.

And in Canada, which hasn’t seen the same degree of protests, criticism and infiltration from animal rights groups as has occurred in the United States, there’s room to get ahead of the charge and play offence.

“Don’t wait until you’re responding, because you’re in the position to lose,” she said.

She helps producers develop their own communication strategies, leveraging the trust she says people typically have in farmers, to connect with audiences as human beings — as parents or Christians and not necessarily as farmers and customers.

She uses her own story about her family losing the farm through bankruptcy as an example.

“So many of us in agriculture define ourselves by being a farmer or rancher and that’s not who we are.

“And so the whole thought is if you can step back and identify what values you have, then identify the segment of the population you’re going after … then you identify commonalities.”

Farmers may be independent, modest or even stubborn, but she said more need to take up this advocacy. It may not result in a better market price, but producers will see a net benefit if the collective action results in favourable farm policy.

“It’s a matter of getting agriculturalists to see that this is a part of their chore list and it’s a must-do,” she said. “It’s not an, ‘if you have time.’ “

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