Last summer I was on a plane leaving Des Moines, Iowa. I struck up polite conversation with the man I was sitting next to. Usually, I am reluctant to tell my seatmates too many details, but this time, something seemed different to me. I began to tell him how I had just assisted with a conference for young people who were pursuing careers in production agriculture, farming and ranching. He looked puzzled; however, he probed a little deeper and began to ask great questions about my career and background. He shared with me that he had been in town as part of a theater production and called New York City his home. Wow, I thought to myself, this man couldn't be more different than me. As the flight carried on, his questions began to get more specific. They involved organic food, vegetarianism and where to buy safe food for his kids. Shopping at Whole Foods seemed to be his only solution, or so he thought. It seemed only appropriate to share with him my perspective and talk about the many choices he has available and how our food supply is the safest and cheapest in the world. I gave him ideas on how to connect with his food sources and told him about my friend, Abby, and how she raises her cattle and markets her meat directly to consumers in a metropolitan area. If he wants to be closer to his food source, he definitely has the option.
Not all of us have the opportunity to connect with strangers on the topic of agriculture every day. I’m sure we all have discovered though, that the great part about advocacy, is there are many forms. You may not always have the opportunities to engage with large audiences or have a platform in which to speak. My goal is to get you in a mindset that will allow you to utilize all of your skills and find different ways to advocate in the appropriate situation and setting.
It is important that we each tell our own personal story of agriculture. Even though I don’t think my life of raising sheep and growing up on a row-crop farm was anything too exciting, it may spark an interest with someone or communicate an important lesson. I can share how having the responsibility of caring for livestock taught me some important life lessons and skills. I can provide information on how ethanol production is used in my community for both fuel and food for livestock.
One of the things we must understand is the growing influence social media provides for us to share our passions and accurate information about our industry. When I first set up my Facebook account, I used it mainly to connect with friends and procrastinate on my homework or other tasks. However, as my network grew, I began to see just how easy it was to use Facebook and Twitter for a platform for many things. I’ve been able to share resources, advocate for legislation and invite friends to take part in the messages all without leaving my laptop.
It is important to have a targeted and strategic message tailored to fit the audience we are trying to reach. As our voices are developed through stories and social media, we can then step it up and find targeted ways to be an advocate. The scope of agriculture is too wide for any of us to become an expert on everything. The best interest is served if we find the few things we are passionate and knowledgable about and advocate for those.
As you move forward into your lives beyond this year, you’ll seek other leadership opportunities and begin to build your careers. When you do, I hope you create and find many ways to share the important message of agriculture: messages about feeding the world, messages about the importance of developing our rural communities, messages about engaging with consumers about where their food comes from, and messages we do not yet know of. Through using our personal stories, by influencing through social media, and by having strategic messages for our audiences, we can reach more, do more, and be more of an advocate for our industry than ever before.
As we were getting off the plane in Detroit, my new acquaintance and I exchanged polite goodbyes. As he headed off the jet bridge, he said to me, “You’ve definitely got me hungry with all this talk about food…I think I’ll go have a cheeseburger.” To me, that’s the best compliment and moment of satisfaction this advocate could ever get!
Jill Casten, a past state officer from Kansas, is the director of training and development for the American Farm Bureau Federation. She holds degrees from Kansas State University, the University of Nebraska and Virginia Tech.