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Advocates in action

Consumers want to know where their food is from and how it’s grown. But many are at least four generations removed from agriculture and have no knowledge of farming. Farmers and ranchers are willing to share their story, but they face a barrier in communication. Media and activist groups successfully spread inaccurate information to consumers to promote their agenda.

In 2009, Missouri agriculture united to bridge the communication gap between producers and consumers. The state commodity and farm policy groups, along with MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil, formed Missouri Farmers Care (MFC). The organization was formed in response to Proposition B, a ballot initiative funded by the Humane Society of the United States. MFC lost that election battle, but they pressed forward to solve the issue and have since worked to strengthen agriculture in the state. The group established priorities and decided to focus on both agriculture policy and promotion.

Missouri’s Right to Farm Amendment was MFC’s next political campaign. The amendment appeared on the August 2014 ballot. Right to Farm proved a victory for MFC, passing with a narrow margin of approximately 2,500 votes.

The Amendment 1 campaign was tough because consumers don’t have farming on their radar. “We have a consuming public that has the most abundant and wholesome food supply they’ve ever had. Anything they want, 24-7, it’s there. A lot of people take it for granted,” said Don Nikodim, MFC chairman and Missouri Pork Association executive vice president. “Helping people understand is one of the biggest challenges.”

With two legislative battles completed, the group is preparing for what may come next. Nikodim thinks MFC will focus on big-picture issues that affect all areas of agriculture.
“I don’t think anyone is convinced the opponents are leaving,” he said, referring to HSUS. “I think we just need to make sure we keep a viable organization to deal with those issues when they come forward.”

Currently, 40 industry groups are members and financial supporters of MFC. There are different levels of membership, but all levels include a $500 annual fee. “The majority of our money goes to the promotion and education side,” Nikodim said.

MFC funds four campaigns that promote agriculture to a variety of audiences. Ag Education on the Move places trained educators in third grade classrooms to talk about modern food production. MFC works with an independent contractor who coordinates the 10-week program. College students, retired teachers and farmers are trained to educate students about agriculture. The educators spend an hour in the classroom talking about crops, livestock, nutrition and more. Students engage in hands-on activities and virtual on-farm experiences through videos.

“Doing that at an early, formative year makes a lot of sense,” Nikodim said. He said researchers claim children of that age learn best.

To reach a wider demographic, MFC’s Safe at the Plate program works with the St. Louis Cardinals. “Safe at the Plate puts a face on farming for those who are removed from the farm and food system,” Nikodim said. MFC uses the baseball team to showcase producers and give consumers a positive image of agriculture. To spread the message, the Cardinals feature MFC in radio advertising, game ads, announcements and promotional activities.

On a smaller scale, MFC hosts panel discussions that feature industry experts. These discussions target food influencers. They allow dieticians and chefs to hear and meet farmers firsthand.

MFC also funds programs through Food Chain Communications. That organization’s Truth in Food program focuses on college students and professors. Founder Kevin Murphy said he visits about 20 Missouri schools annually.

Additionally, Food Chain Communications provides resources to grocers and food retailers through its Farmers Go to Market program. Murphy also sends an e-newsletter to all Missouri Grocer Association members.

A national alliance

Soon after forming, MFC joined groups across the nation to create the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. The alliance includes 83* groups representing agriculture. These groups provide funding and volunteer leadership for the alliance. Its goal is to rebuild consumers’ trust in modern agriculture.

“Day in and day out, our biggest challenge is having people understand food production in a personal way,” said Randy Krotz, USFRA chief executive officer. Farmers need a personal connection with consumers to be successful in alleviating concerns.

“As a whole, we have consumers that walk through a grocery store with a level of guilt. They believe there’s food that’s healthier than what they’re purchasing” Krotz said. The USFRA drives the message that the nation’s entire food supply is healthy. “If you can’t buy organic, it’s OK. If you shop down the center aisles versus the outer aisles of a grocery store, it’s OK,” he said. The USFRA supports all methods of production but argues that organic is not healthier. Krotz said the 10 percent of the population talking about food have a higher income than most families. “You can’t put guilt on mothers and ask them to buy food that’s higher cost with no value to the price other than the food system or brand,” he said.

With new challenges ahead, the USFRA is setting its target on the Millennial generation. “We are doing research to find out how to communicate with that crowd.”

One method proving successful in communicating to young consumers is through farmers their age. Personal stories are the key to conveying the message. “It starts with the farmer’s voice. When producers tell their story about farming, it changes people,” Krotz said.

Last summer, the USFRA released a documentary called Farmland. The movie features six young farmers from across the U.S. The movie’s goal is to communicate through pop culture to a large demographic that agriculture had been unable to reach.

“We were looking for a character story about agriculturalists while at the same time making sure it wasn’t a response to the other movies out there,” Krotz said.

Film producer James Moll selected the characters and directed the entire production. “We wanted a hands-off production and James wouldn’t do it any other way,” Krotz said. The USFRA saw the agreement as a great opportunity and remained uninvolved until it came time to launch the film. Farmland played in 170 theaters and was available on Hulu through October 2014 where it received 125,000 views. Farmland is available through several retailers including Wal-Mart, Amazon and Netflix. Several cable and satellite channels broadcast the movie. Viewers can also stream Farmland from iTunes, YouTube, Blockbuster and others.

For the USFRA, the idea behind the movie was to get people talking and provide understanding for the basics of modern day agriculture. “You’re not going to walk out of Farmland with an understanding of GMOs and antibiotics, but you’ll get a better idea and be able to have a conversation,” Krotz said.

Aside from the film, USFRA has focused on social media, short videos and food dialogue panels. “Our influence and visibility online is second only to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and HSUS,” Krotz said.

The group uses Facebook and Twitter, and produces short how-to videos explaining farming practices. “We know that consumers like a little bit of humor and a third party they recognize or that can validate the information for them,” Krotz said. Earlier this year they announced the second set of finalists for the Faces of Farming & Ranching program. These farmers from across the country act as ambassadors to the public and share their story to consumers on a regular basis. USFRA also holds Food Dialogue panels to discuss issues and topics important to consumers. These panels have taken place in New York, Austin, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and cities throughout the Midwest. Topics have included food integrity, farm size, animal welfare and antibiotics to name a few. Krotz said the Food Dialogue panels are well known and popular. Krotz said people love to watch a venue where everyone gets to speak, and hundred of thousands of people have viewed these events in person and online. All panels are taped and available to view on the USFRA webpage. The site provides resources on agriculture issues and personal stories from farmers.

In its first four years, the USFRA has made progress in reaching consumers. “We have begun to see trust rebound as related to transparency of how farmers communicate. Millennials are looking for information. They want to trust and understand,” Krotz said. As farmers continue to share their story and consumers search for information, the trust factor will grow he said. “One piece that we make sure we’re clinging to is transparency,” Krotz said. He thinks the mistake agriculture made over time was not realizing consumers wanted to know how their food was made.

The USFRA’s latest campaign is called “I Am Farmland.” The campaign will bring Farmland into 9th and 10th grade high school curriculum as well as colleges across the nation. There is also a shorter version of the film, which the organization hopes to introduce into grade-school classrooms. Individual donations to “I Am Farmland” support the distribution of the film.

Connecting families to food

In Kansas, agriculture groups have formed a state coalition called Kansas Farm Food Connection (KFFC). The organization formed in August 2013 and includes Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Pork Association, Kansas Wheat, Midwest Dairy, Kansas Soybean Commission, Kansas Corn Commission, Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission and the Kansas Livestock Association.

“Several of the ag groups have been looking for a way to do consumer programs within our state. Many of us were looking at doing some of the same programs. We thought we should figure out how to do it together,” said Tim Stroda, Chairman of KFFC and President-CEO of the Kansas Pork Association. “Our mission is to bring Kansas farmers and Kansas families together,” said Stroda. The group isn’t a formal coalition or non-profit organization. KFFC is an agreement between the member groups to work together on projects.

KFFC is developing more specified plans and targets for the future. It currently focuses on two audiences—Millennial mothers and food influencers. The latter includes bloggers, dieticians and health officials.

A recent KFFC event, “Meet the Makers,” paired farmers with food influencers to cook a meal together, donating part of the food to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City.

“We are using a multi-faceted approach towards thought leaders and trying to figure out what our plan is for general consumers,” said Stroda.

KFFC’s latest event included a cooking demonstration and panel discussion on GMOs. Panelists included a chef, biologist, blogger and producer. More than 75 people attended the event held in Kansas City.

On a larger scale, KFFC sponsors a TV cooking program called Chef Alli. The Topeka-area show is a six-minute segment designed for moms. Featured recipes focus on ingredients from each of the seven commodities that comprise KFFC.

“For KFFC, it looks like the message of bringing good healthy food to the family will work for us. The idea is to bring it through recipes. That will be our catch to get families interested and while we have their attention, we can talk about a farm for a little bit,” said Stroda. To reach the general consumer audience, Stroda said the group is successful using social media. KFFC is focusing on small events where farmers and food influencers can meet one-on-one.

* This number was corrected from the originally printed text here online on 6/30/2015 from "nearly 70" to "83".

 

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