When I graduated from college (back in the virtual stone-age of 1998), there was a lot of talk about how we needed to "educate the public" about food and farming. If you were in FFA or 4-H, it was your rallying cry. And it has continued to be so, ever since, as fresh-faced FFAers give the same speech. Over and over. And somewhere along the line, even as I wrote about our life on the farm in Prairie Farmer, I became a little jaded about that line. It seemed we did a whole lot of talking about educating the public, without actually doing any educating of the public. Mostly, we got really good at preaching to the choir.
We funded and volunteered for Ag in the Classroom, and we in agriculture gave ourselves a collective pat on the back for it. And then we watched as consumers became further disconnected from agriculture. Please don't mistake what I'm saying here; this is not the fault of Ag in the Classroom. It's simply a sign that AITC alone was not and is not enough.
And so last fall, when Dennis Vercler of the Illinois Farm Bureau stood at the Illinois Commodities Conference and told me about this new group that was getting together, that would represent all the main commodities in Illinois and was planning to hire a real PR agency, I got a little excited. Maybe this would be a real step towards truly getting something done.
So far, it seems to be. This month, Dennis and his communications cohorts at Illinois Beef, Illinois Corn Growers, Illinois Pork Producers and Illinois Soybean announced the Farmer Image Campaign. They revealed research conducted on their behalf by the public relations agency Morgan & Myers, which include a poll of 1,100 non-farm adults in Illinois. Among their findings:
* They believe 54% of Illinois farm products come from "corporate farms" and 46% comes from "family farms." (Not from the survey: USDA stats show 94% of the nation's food supply comes from individual family farms and partnerships. Just a little number to tuck under your cap.)
* They cannot clearly define "factory farms," yet uniformly feel that such farms dominate Illinois agriculture.
* Two-thirds say they are not knowledgeable about farming practices used on Illinois farms. But two-thirds also say they are personally concerned about lax regulations of corporate farms and are concerned about the role of big business in farming.
The next step: a real campaign. I got to chat with Tim Maiers with the IPPA at the State Fair, and he says they'll take the research and use it to formulate a marketing campaign, all designed to change the way consumers perceive farmers. They'll use real farm families to show real consumers what a real commercial farm looks like.
And with any luck, you and I will never see those ads here in rural Illinois. We are the choir, after all. The ads will wind up in Chicago, Peoria, St. Louis and other metro areas where consumers tend to have gotten most of their information thus far from "Food, Inc." And that's the whole idea.
It really is exciting stuff.