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Jeff Fowle: Getting ag’s message heard first requires listening

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Farmers “need to be in the right place to be heard, to say things in the right way in order to influence or use people of influence for our benefit," says Jeff Fowle. Ten percent of the population will be against you no matter what you say or do. Ten percent will be in your corner, will be your allies, no matter what you say or do. It’s the group in the middle, the 80 percent who are basically neutral, that will be receptive. They’re the ones we’re trying to connect with, the people to whom we want to make sure we’re saying the right things. Bottom line, it all comes down to influence. If you’re not saying the right things and you aren’t saying them in the right place, sorry, you’ve lost your influence.”

For agriculture to convey its message to the public and to governmental agencies and regulators first requires those in agriculture to listen, says Jeff Fowle.

And he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, agriculture needs to stop using old methods of communicating with the non-farm community.

The fourth generation California farmer/rancher says he is “just a cowboy who latched on to technology and social media” as part of his “passion for talking to others about agriculture and telling our great story.”

He says he came home from college in the 1990s “and was immediately immersed in a regulatory quagmire, spending hours upon hours dealing with all the agencies, all the regulations, all the fees, all the entities that threaten our way of life. I was constantly asking myself, ‘Can they hear what we’re trying to tell them?’

 “I began to analyze how we could best get our message across, to develop a process for very aggressively reaching out to these agency representatives and trying to shape regulations we could deal with.

He  says, “These agencies, in theory, get their power from the people, and those people are our customers. But it’s critical to realize we can’t converse with our customers and the government agencies in the same manner.”

Farmers, Fowle says, “need to be in the right place to be heard, to say things in the right way in order to influence or use people of influence for our benefit. Ten percent of the population will be against you no matter what you say or do. Ten percent will be in your corner, will be your allies, no matter what you say or do. It’s the group in the middle, the 80 percent who are basically neutral, that will be receptive. They’re the ones we’re trying to connect with, the people to whom we want to make sure we’re saying the right things.

“Bottom line, it all comes down to influence. If you’re not saying the right things and you aren’t saying them in the right place, sorry, you’ve lost your influence.”

Social media, Fowle says, “worked for me — as it can for you. It’s about having conversations, creating relationships with people you never knew before, and using that relationship as a bridge to a community where you can have influence on others to achieve what you’re trying to accomplish.”

He makes social media an important part of his routine, he says, and on an given day reached 900,000 to 1 million people.

“It’s not complex,” he says. “Who are you? What makes you unique? What are your passions? These are things you share with your customers who know nothing about agriculture. They can be the gateway to starting conversations and having influence.

It can take as little as 15 minutes a day, or a week — it’s the consistency that’s important, the quality, not the quantity.

“What you say needs to be reflective of you. Is your message accurately portraying who you are as a farmer?

“We need to realize that there are two agricultures: old and new, Fowle says.“These agencies, in theory, get their power from the people, and those people are our customers. But it’s critical to realize we can’t converse with our customers and the government agencies in the same manner.”

“In the old agriculture,” Fowle says, “we emphasized the need for maximizing production. In the new agriculture, we need to change that philosophy to one of optimizing production. In the old agriculture, we stressed educating the public, the schools, the media, about farming and what we do.

“In the new agriculture, it’s about listening, using our ears, making sure we’re hearing what our customers want. Old agriculture emphasized ‘tell your story, tell your story.’ We can tell our story as much as we want, as loud as we want, but until the other person is listening, it doesn’t do any good. We need to engage in conversations — to talk with people, not at people.

“In the old agriculture, it was, ‘we need more resources, more money, more time.’ In the new agriculture, we need to think smarter, to do more and be more creative with what we have. Old agriculture said ‘keep the media off the farm and ranch.’ In the new agriculture, we have got to be open and transparent, because that’s how we demonstrate our authenticity.”

In recent dealings with media personalities who were portraying agriculture in a negative light, Fowle says, “We learned three critical lessons: Our message, our stories, what we say, must come from farmers themselves and their employees — not from organizations or PR agencies. They don’t have the trust that we farmers and ranchers have.

“The information we share about farming must be stored in a central repository, where everyone has access and it can be shared at all levels, federal, state, even globally.

“And probably most important, we need to speak about our feelings, in the language of farming, In conversations with our customers, we shouldn’t use science, economics, or business. They don’t buy it, and they don’t care about it — they want to know what we think and feel about what you do, not the details.”

(For more, see Fowle’s blog at commonsenseagriculture.com)

 

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