Last week, I found myself sitting at the Ag Communications symposium at the University of Illinois. It was organized to mark the 50th anniversary of the program from which I graduated, and on tap were lots of speakers, lots of colleagues, lots of friends I hadn't seen in awhile, lots of agriculture. It was, in short, a great way to spend the day.
It also included lots of thought-provoking discussions, which I'll try to share more of throughout the week. But for now, a single speaker stood out to me – me, the southern Illinois farm girl turned western Illinois farm wife who's found a niche in life advocating for agriculture. Amid a sea of agribusiness CEOs and wise people and reporters and big thinkers about food and agriculture and the farm was Ken Cook. Yes, that Ken Cook. The one with the Environmental Working Group, who spent a good share of the '90s and early '00s exposing the government payments farmers receive, right there in searchable format on the Internet, whose semi-accuracy has been used in a variety of misinformed ways to slander individual farmers.
But I digress.
We'd spent much of the day, up to the point when he took the podium, talking of booming populations and of the need and ability to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Of the wonders of the farm and of agricultural technology and of biotechnology. Of the best way to communicate agriculture to a disconnected consumer.
Then Ken Cook took the microphone and changed the tenor of the conversation.
He started off by telling us that he eats meat. He also eats processed food. And conventional produce. "I recommend that people consider mostly eating what's healthy for them, and all three of those categories are included," he added. Well now. That sounded downright sensible.
He went on to share thoughts on farm policy and environmental policy, and he noted that there had only been glancing consideration from the previous speakers of the day that there is support for farmers within the environmental movement.
"And if you feel in agriculture that you're under attack, if you feel that your story is not getting out and you listen to almost all the advice that you heard earlier today, that advice is bad," Cook added. "The best most valuable piece of advice is to get farmers out there and talking to people. We need to hear and connect to farmers."
"It's one thing though for all the companies who've come up here and said that farmers should be the spokespeople. It's another thing altogether for those companies to hide behind farmers. And they're hiding behind farmers, in some cases."
Obviously, his theme was counter to much of what we'd heard. But that's ok. Because we need to hear (and think about) another side.
And then he made one of the most valuable points of the day. That maybe agriculture isn't listening very well. That the opposite of listening is not talking; the opposite of listening is waiting to talk.
"And you're waiting to talk. You're not really listening." And just to clarify, he was directing that at agriculture in general, and at ag communicators in specific. Which, to be honest, is really any of us who are attempting to tell ag's story.
Is he right? I've certainly been guilty of "waiting to talk" rather than actually listening, at least in my personal life – just ask my husband.
But are we waiting to talk in agriculture? Waiting our turn? Not really listening or not really owning up to the (potential) downsides of what we do or of the products we use?
Is he right?