You’re waiting in line at a local fast food restaurant during your lunch break. It has been a crazy morning helping out with activities in the agriculture department. As you’re trying to figure out if you’ve worked hard enough to Super Size your burger, you get tapped on the shoulder. The sweet lady behind you has a toddler holding onto her leg and seems friendly enough as she asks you about your agriculture t-shirt. Innocently, you explain where you go to school and the exciting things your department is doing. Next thing you know the whole conversation takes a drastic turn. “What are GMO’s? Are there antibiotics in our milk supply? What does organic really mean?” Suddenly, your stomach does a flip flop. Maybe Super Sizing wasn’t such a great idea.
As agriculture students and/or professionals, we are supposed to be prepared for this situation right? Why is it so hard to find the right words? My preacher always said that when people find out you are a Christian, you just became their personal expert on the Bible. The same thing is true with agriculture. With approximately 2% of the population feeding the remaining 98%, many people do not know another person who works in the industry. So how do agriculturalists find the right words to say when we are face to face with the tough questions?
- Open your ears before you open your mouth.
This applies to most things in life, but we will start here anyway. It can be all too easy to get carried away spewing facts, research findings, and even get a little angry about subjects that we are so passionate about. However, most people have a legitimate question. They aren’t looking to argue or take notes on your 10 minute PowerPoint presentation. They just want an answer they can understand and believe in. The best way I have found to do this is to ask a simple question, “Can you tell me more?” This shifts the conversation back to them. Not only do they know that you truly care about their concern, but it gives us a better understanding of their position. Remember- listen to understand! Don’t listen to reply!
- Respect their position- even if you have to bite your tongue.
“I understand why you think that Mr. /Mrs. ___________. There has been a lot of controversy/discussion over that topic. Let me share with you a little bit more about my experience with ___________.” That sentence can be magic! Not only did you just validate their concerns, but you opened up the door to share. Remember though, communication is a full contact sport. Your words need to be sincere, but so do your eyes, facial expressions, and body language. It is all too easy to ruin the conversation by saying the right words the wrong way!
- Time to tell your story- big or small tell them all!
The time you won a blue ribbon with your heifer at the fair or planted your first garden can seem pretty insignificant to a seasoned “aggie”, but it can be one of the best ways to share your viewpoint. Stories are exciting, animated, and humorous. Keep them that way! Sure, you can throw in a fact (from a reliable source, of course) or two, but sometimes keeping it personal is best. Nobody knows that story better than you do.
Let’s try it:
“I understand why you are concerned about antibiotic use in dairies. There has been a lot of discussion about that topic lately. My parents own a dairy farm just outside of town. It is important to us that our cattle feel their best so we occasionally give antibiotics that have been prescribed by our veterinarian. However, these cows are separated from the rest of the herd until they have met the required withdraw period for that particular medication. They are still milked daily to be kept comfortable, but the milk is thrown away. To be extra careful, each tank of milk is tested when it leaves our farm. Even the slightest trace of antibiotics requires that the whole load is dumped. Because of these extra precautions, our family is very confident about the milk we sale and put on our dinner table.”
- It is okay to disagree!
Of course it would be nice if everyone could agree. Luckily, we don’t have to. The goal of the conversation is never to talk until you’re “right”. At the end of the conversation, our goal should be to have planted a positive seed in that person. Maybe they will do some additional research on what you shared or maybe they will just have a better understanding of the opposing side. By wearing that agriculture t-shirt, you just became their representation of our entire industry!
- It’s also okay if you don’t know!
As agriculture becomes more complex, specialization becomes a necessary part of our industry. Sometimes you’re just not going to know the answer to their question and that’s okay! Well, it’s okay as long as you can admit it. Perhaps you can explain the basics of the topic or refer the person to another reputable source or knowledgeable person. If you are completely drawing a blank, just explain what you do know. “My family has a row crop operation and I am currently in my freshman year studying plant science. I hope to take more animal science classes in the future, but I am not familiar enough with livestock to answer your question at this time.”
- “What more can I do for you?”
No you don’t have to word it like that, but keep this question in the back of your mind as the conversation comes to a close. It could be appropriate to write down a few web pages that further discuss the agriculture topic or maybe to hand out the flyer to the next open house at your department farm. Taking this step shows that you are truly interested in their concerns and are willing to go the extra mile. Even if they never search the web or visit your event, I am willing to bet that you positively impacted their viewpoint of agriculture. The saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” applies to agriculture too!
Picture from Google Images
About the author:
Kayla Uhles is a senior at Southeast Missouri State University studying agribusiness industry and communications. She credits her experiences on the family farm and in youth organizations such as FFA and 4H for fueling her passion for agriculture. She has found her purpose sharing the agriculture story with others and will complete her degree program in December. In her free time, she enjoys barrel racing and giving horseback riding lessons to young cowboys and cowgirls.