Opinion – The Future of Agriculture Communications and Communicators

The need for those in the Agriculture Communications sector will be imperative in the future. With the convergence of technology and agriculture, someone needs to disseminate that information and convey it to farmers and the general public. Our role as Agriculture Communicators is part-scientist, part tech-guru, part dietician, and part-teacher and we impart that information to communicate it to our audience.

It wasn’t that long ago that the primary means to communicate advances in agriculture was in print or radio. Audiences for agriculture information were rural based or farmers, and they were looking for information and education on techniques to improve their agriculture practices. With the advent of technology, agriculture communicators have progressed from a mostly journalism-based craft to media production, web design, strategic communications, and social media. With the emergence of technology, agriculture communicators can reach a bigger audience. The problem with technology is that it has created an echo chamber of farmers and consumers, who sometimes don’t see eye to eye.

I created this blog with the aspiration of connecting agriculture and the urbanite, and I am not alone in this endeavor. As more generations of urbanites become less connected to where their food comes from, it has created what some term as a “green divide.” Being born and raised in Los Angeles and other urban areas throughout California, we have a romantic notion of the farmer’s market as a place to get a bouquet of flowers, a cup of coffee, and vegetables from small family farmers. Godfrey and Wood wrote, “Shoppers’ perceptions of agriculture are largely based on clouded childhood memories, second-hand information and the occasional horror story in the media” (2003). Consumer perception reported by the media include dangers with GMOs, the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gases, environmental degradation, and animal welfare issues.

Forty-four percent of consumers stated that their primary source of animal welfare concerns was from the Humane Society for the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and that information provided from the industry were the least sourced information.

Despite numerous studies from scientists and the EPA stating that agriculture in the United States contributes about 9 percent to greenhouse gases, articles and news stories report studies that call for a three-fold increase in the consumption of beans and pulses and a 75 percent reduction in the consumption of meat. Consumers are under the perception that feedlots are how beef is raised and that grass-fed is a superior product. Until I became involved in agriculture, I was one of those people. Despite efforts from the beef industry, the message is not getting across to the consumer.

If consumers are responding to HSUS and PETA, what is it about their organizations that their message is able to persuade them? Why is it that people who spread misinformation have more followers than the people involved in the industry?

The problem is a general mistrust of the scientific community. As Shanto Iyengar and Douglas Massey (2018) note, “shifts have enabled unscrupulous actors with ulterior motives increasingly to circulate fake news, misinformation, and disinformation with the help of trolls, bots, and respondent-driven algorithms.” Media outlets will have non-scientific people like Food Babe to explain the e. coli infection in romaine lettuce. People will stay within their echo chamber because they do not want to create any dissonance.

What can agriculture communicators learn from this, and how can they craft a persuasive message that conveys what the industry is doing today? There are so many studies, glossy reports, and great graphics that address some of these issues and it is up to agriculture communicators in the future to deliver it.

Agriculture communicators need to be proactive to consumers and technology can assist. In addition to blogs, social media channels, such as YouTube, and vlogs (video logs) could connect farmers with consumers. We need to work within our echo chamber to find a solution to bridge that divide between consumers and agriculture. This involves the cooperation of dieticians, scientists, teachers, farmers and ranchers to work on this cause using technology to create a common ground. It shouldn’t be an us versus them philosophy when it comes to organic versus conventional farming practices; agriculture communicators should use both viewpoints to convey the truths when it comes to farming and ranching. Technology can create a dialogue, and agriculture communicators can be the moderators of that discussion.



Cultivate Conference explores the future of technology and agriculture

Note: This article also appears on the Emerging Prairie website and a huge thank-you to them for giving me the opportunity to write an article for them. My first, as an agriculture communicator. 

Over 300 people attended the 2nd annual Cultivate Conference hosted by Emerging Prairie on November 15th, 2018. The conference was a convergence of technology and agriculture presented in TED-style talks from companies providing software programs and applications for farmers and ranchers to do their job better.

“One of the biggest challenges today is to evaluate the combination of various technologies to arrive at the answer to ‘What is Best?’”, was the critical concept presented by Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies.

To answer the question, the presenters highlighted products that addressed diverse problems such as, tractor safety, getting wireless and internet to the farm with a presentation from the infrastructure panel, outdated technology in the back office, tillage, renting and managing land, weather, the cost and availability of feed, and other applications bringing technology to make their job easier.

“I can get 24 tons of feed in two hours; I can’t get Domino’s.” joked Carl Lippert of Grass Ridge Farm, when talking about his app, Feed Manager, developed for his dairy farm in Wisconsin and available to farmers.

With the increase in world population, a continuing labor shortage, and the shifting demographics of farms getting larger, Brian Carroll, Director of the Center for Excellence at Emerging Prairie and his team, has a dream that farming will be autonomous by 2050. To do this, Carroll proposes an EPCOT (experimental prototype community of tomorrow) type center where technology comes together to interact in Fargo.

“We have all the parts in place, we have great companies, we have a university system, we have innovators, we have people building businesses, we have opportunities here that are really the key parts of the engine,” said Carroll. “What we need to do now as a community, is to put a focus on those together and turn that into a high performing engine.”

To do this, Carroll proposed a four-step process for that goal to come to fruition. The first step in the process is an ecosystem to identify opportunities for products to be built.  Second is to start thinking about an accelerator and fill it with businesses around the gaps. Then move into a makerspace, an area where people can come together from different organizations in order to work and collaborate, but also share technology. Lastly, as Carroll stresses, the need to target the education system to look for ways in which we build STEM, research, computer science, and machine learning.

“Our generation may be the last generation to drive a tractor,” said Ryan Raguse, Co-Founder and Chairman of Myriad Mobile, the parent company of Bushel and one of the event sponsors. “There are two types of futurists, indefinite and definite. We need to be the definite futurists and believe the future is going to happen – you get a say.”

The event concluded with the farmer’s panel consisting of Chris Johnson of C&S Farms, Sarah Lovas of Lovas Farms, and Zach Johnson of MN Millennial Farmer. The group discussed such issues as buying and marketing online, technology and the challenges from a generational standpoint, and products that could solve a current pain point. A few things that the panel discussed were, that it is essential to have the service to back-up the product, that it is excellent when it works, and there’s a difference between the analytics saying what’s best for the farm and the actual art form of farming. The panel found the conference very informative and expressed optimism with the current labor shortage, the goal of achieving an autonomous farm.

“There is a lot of great technologies that were presented. It’s very exciting to hear about all the creativity in agriculture,” said Lovas. “Creativity and imagination are a part of being a farmer, and it’s great when we can see that coming from the technology and software standpoint.”

Greg Tehven, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Emerging Prairie, regards the Cultivate Conference as a space for collaboration and exploration of possibilities where technology can create efficiencies for the farmer and hopes to build on its potential.

“Based on the national interest with folks coming in from around the country, as well as the number of farmers who drove from across the state to be here, there’s a tremendous amount of potential,” said Tehven. “We hope to keep building partnerships to bring great innovators from around the world to come to North Dakota to meet folks and see how they can connect together.”




Profile – Wanda Patsche Connecting Farmer and Consumer Through Her Writing

There are several people who blog about agriculture, the issues happening on their farms and ranches, rural life, and informing consumers about the industry. Wanda Patsche is one such person, who for the past six years, authors the blog and a Facebook page titled “Minnesota Farm Living.”

Patsche initially started with a Facebook page in 2012 when it was not common for farmers to do so and started the page as a necessity.

“I’m starting to read information of things that are not true and what farmers are doing, and I knew for a fact they weren’t true, and I thought I should really talk about this,” said Patsche. “I’m just this Grandma farmer out in the middle of nowhere, who’s going to want to read what I have to say?”

The answer to that question comes through while talking with Patsche; there is an impression of an inquisitive go-getter. Prior to marrying her husband of 40+ years, she asked him why they plowed the fields and how much he made. To which he replied, “it depends.” They purchased their farm located in South-Central Minnesota in Martin County, 10 miles from the Iowa border. They have been farming for 40 years. They raise hogs, about 1600 a year, and farm about 1000 acres of corn and soybeans. Nearly half of the crops go towards the hogs, and the rest of the corn goes to a local ethanol plant and soybeans for processing. For the first 20 years, Wanda worked in town in IT for a local scale manufacturing company.

Her knowledge of IT helped with the development of her Facebook page and subsequently her blog and the promotion to over 12 thousand followers on Facebook. Patsche’s goal is to show what modern farming is like and to bridge the disconnect between farmers and consumers.

“I write to the consumer, who I think about all the time,” said Patsche. She continues, “That I feel is our biggest challenge in agriculture is getting outside of our tribe.”

While posting on her Facebook page, she had the idea of starting a blog but had “an internal dialogue” about doing it as she didn’t have a background in communications or journalism. Despite that hurdle, Patsche attended AgChat conferences with other bloggers and learned what they were doing and was inspired to start her blog six years ago. She has over a million views on her blog and the opportunity to connect with consumers and answering questions that they have.

When consumers have questions, Patsche will first look at what it is being said and tries to engage them in a conversation. If it is a negative comment, she attempts to have a conversation and views it as a challenge of “how can I take this negative comment, turn it around, and look for some common ground or shared values.” Patsche has experienced success doing that. If someone is extreme, she finds that you are not going to convince them and will leave it like that. There are some topics that are hot-button issues, and she will generally avoid them and has learned what they are through her posts.

Patsche started with blog posts once a week trying to put good content out but has since posted less to be selective on what she posts, so it may be once a month. It depends on what is going on in her farm and agriculture and in her personal life.

When Patsche is not writing, she also participates in Ag in the Classroom and was in the middle of assembling pumpkin kits for children in kindergarten through second grade. In Minnesota, they have a public/private partnership of agriculture groups that present over 400 standardized lessons that teachers can bring into the classroom. A previous lesson Patsche taught was working with a local orchard using the apples to make homemade applesauce and making the connection to the children with a 15-minute lesson. For 5th graders, she made them apple detectives and did an apple tasting for the best one based on aroma, texture, and sweetness. Based on these factors, each student filled out a matrix and tabulated the scores based on the criteria which incorporated math. After the tabulation of scores, Patsche revealed the winning apple variety, and she stated that the students were engaged.

Keeping people engaged in the classroom and on social media seems to be natural for Patsche. She was talking about her work while in the tractor disking fields post-harvest. During the conversation, Patsche told a story about a comment she received she saved on her computer as she states, “this one needs special attention.” On a discussion about fertilizer, a reader told her that she should plant pumpkins in the cornrows. Patsche believes the follower was citing what the Native Americans were doing centuries ago.

“All I can do is envision going down the rows with the combine, and there are all these pumpkins all over,” said Patsche.

Patsche also has three daughters; all are married. No one has expressed interest in the farm. Their youngest was just married a couple months ago, and she did marry a farmer, but they live about 45 miles away. She also has five grandchildren ages ranging from age 3 to 11.