There’s a lot on your plate between seeding and harvest, but do you consider communicating with consumers a ‘must-do’ task for your farm to be a success? Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, a grain farmer, speaker and advocate, encourages all farmers to put it on their to-do list.
“I think it’s important for us to tell our story. Number one, because it is a great story to tell and our consumers should hear it. There are so many positive things around what we’re doing,” says Jolly-Nagel, who grows durum wheat, malting barley, chickpeas, canola and lentils alongside her husband David and their two daughters near Mossbank, Saskatchewan.
Communication is an obligation
Jolly-Nagel personally loves to share positive messages about the sustainable food grown on her farm and around the country, but she takes it a step further, calling communication an “obligation” for farmers to protect the privilege of using modern agricultural tools.
“If we don't tell our story in an effective way, we will lose the privileges that we have on the farm today. I look at every technological tool that we have available to us – whether it’s new seed genetics or equipment, whether it’s the pesticides or the marketing tools we use – all of that is at risk. We have to look at it more as a privilege than a right,” she says.
Jolly-Nagel points to the Canadian statistic that consumers are two generations removed from the farm. Whether it’s malting barley for beer or canola for cooking oil, people are interested in food ingredients. In order to earn public trust, farmers need to engage in conversations around food and why they need to use the latest technologies on their farms.
A proactive approach
Jolly-Nagel admits sharing these stories is not easy for everyone.
“Typically, farmers don’t consider communication as part of what they need to do every day. And I can appreciate that,” she says. “The last thing a farmer needs is something else to add to their to-do list, especially something that is uncomfortable for a lot of them.”
This discomfort may be rooted in the fact that a lot of discussions with consumers around agriculture are defensive. According to Jolly-Nagel, that perception needs to change.
“My own perspective has changed a lot since the first time I started stepping out to tell my story,” she says. “I believe when I first started hearing about the concept of farmers telling their story, it was really a personal defense mechanism. I love to tell people about what's happening on the farm but at the time, it was to fight back at misconceptions.”
Jolly-Nagel has since flipped that thinking around, seeking out opportunities to proactively share her story and showcase modern agriculture practices for curious consumers.
Value system connection
Jolly-Nagel’s first tip for effective communication with the public is to “start thinking about the value system behind the decisions we make on the farm.”
“Rather than talk about spraying a pesticide for yield, I find it more effective to take a step back and really think about the reason why you may be spraying that particular pesticide,” she says. “Without question, profitability plays a part of that – farmers are not sustainable without profitability – but there are other reasons. In particular, plant and soil health are at the forefront of these decisions that we’re making. And that really is reflective of a farmer’s value system. It’s important to us that we have sustainable soil and the only way to have a sustainable soil is to grow healthy crops.”
Once a farmer has connected with the value system attached to the decision that they’re making, then it’s much easier to have a conversation with a consumer who is also motivated by their own value system, which may be around protecting the environment. “Once a farmer has shared their value system, I think consumers are more open to hearing about why they’re making their decisions,” Jolly-Nagel says.
Social media dos and don’ts
Once you know what you want to say, the next step is deciding how to communicate it. “Social media is one of the obvious ways that farmers can communicate because we all have the tools available to us if we want to do it,” she says.
Jolly-Nagel cautions that it’s easy to make mistakes using online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – like using ALL CAPS to ‘yell’ at someone or jumping down someone’s throat when taking offense to a post or Tweet.
“It’s easy to be offended by some of the comments that come out on social media,” she says. “Any sort of comment that insinuates farmers are choosing to do something that isn’t good for the environment or that we are somehow choosing profit over sustainability can be offensive.”
Jolly-Nagel says the farmers she sees using social media effectively come back to the shared value system. “If you can get past the cheap shot, there’s plenty of opportunity to share that value system.”
Something else to keep in mind is the scope of the audience; although it may feel like you’re having a conversation with one person on social media, there are potentially thousands of people that could interact with that same conversation.
Another quick tip is to keep the technical farm jargon (e.g. acres, bushels, active ingredient, etc.) out of your social media content to better connect with consumers.
Engage with elected officials
Jolly-Nagel is quick to point out that “there are a lot of different ways to tell your story.” For instance, she loves politics and encourages others to engage with politicians.
“I truly believe we must be having conversations with our public servants. Elected officials have a lot of opportunity to fight for agriculture, but they too are part of the Canadian statistic that less than two percent of our population are farming,” she says. “They’re elected to represent agriculture, but they don’t always have the background required to represent agriculture.”
“I encourage farmers to be in touch with their politicians, whether that’s on a regional, provincial or federal level. There are a lot of issues affecting agriculture that stem through political arms. And if more farmers could do a better job of reaching out to those elected officials, I think we could have more influence.”
Teachers are another audience that Jolly-Nagel recommends farmers connect with. “They are actively seeking out information when it comes to agriculture,” she says.
An easy way to get started is by volunteering for organizations such as Agriculture in the Classroom and being available to tell your story to students. “The very least that we can do as farmers is to help educate the younger generation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had educated consumers coming up out of high school that were better connected to the farm?”
Whether you choose to get on social media, contact your MP or chat with a student, speak up and proudly tell the story of your malting barley crop. You’ll be glad you added it to the to-do list.