This past week I had the incredible opportunity to join agriculture commodity groups from across the country in Orlando for a conference hosted by the Center for Food Integrity. Let me tell you, I LIVE for these kinds of things. There's something about being in a room filled with your people – like minded individuals who have dedicated their lives to the same cause, in this case, telling the story of agriculture. After being at conferences like this, I always come home on a high, re-energized and inspired by my colleagues to pursue new ideas and projects.
On the last day of our conference, we had seven individuals join us for a consumer panel. These individuals were from the Orlando area, between the ages of 20-40, did not come from an agricultural background, and were selected from a survey based on their concerns with on-farm practices. They were given minimal information about who we were in the crowd (farmers and agriculture communicators) with the goal that their answers would be authentic and honest, not swayed by their perception of how they thought we might react.
The greatest and most shocking lesson I learned from the panelists was that anecdotal evidence carries more weight than science. By definition, “anecdotal evidence is based on hearsay rather than hard facts.” But wait, I thought that we learned in school that anecdotes were less reliable than science? Short, personal stories of reference are not representative of the larger picture, yet in agriculture here we are repeatedly defending ourselves based on what a few people have said or claimed. I think this shift in thinking has stemmed from a media and marketing trend of creating and capitalizing on mistrust and skepticism. There are many examples, from documentaries to marketing campaigns that have instilled fear and caused misunderstanding of the food industry based on anecdotal evidence or misguided “science.” Like it or not, anecdotal evidence matters. The story from “So-and-So” about "that one time they ate that one thing and this one thing happened" or "that one time I heard from a friend that blah blah blah…" THESE are the stories and pieces of “evidence” that stick in people’s brains, especially if they are scary.
To be completely honest, listening to the consumer panel was painful at times. I had white knuckles gripping my chair in hopes that releasing my frustration under the table would help prevent my face from turning up in horror or offense. Some of the things they said were hard to hear. When they repeatedly used words like "deceptive" or "crooked" when referring to the agriculture industry, to hear them say they mistrusted not only regulatory bodies but some family farmers as well, for them to admit that the opinion of a review on Yelp held more weight in their mind than the professional opinion of a PhD... It was alarming, mortifying, and exactly what I needed to hear.
I'm not sure why it shocked me so much. I knew these perceptions of agriculture existed and I've encountered them many times before. I guess sometimes when you are surrounded by a circle of like-minded people long enough you forget some of the outside ideas that you used to hear on a daily basis. I value, respect, and truly appreciate the perspectives shared by the consumer panel and I know they aren't coming from a place of malice, but rather a place of fear and desire to understand what is best for them, their families, and the world. This was the perfect reminder of why my job as a voice for agriculture really matters.
Just within one week after the conference, I received these four messages from different friends. In many of my friend groups, I am the “Token Ag Friend” so messages like these aren’t out of the ordinary. After receiving these messages and pasting them together, I had a realization...
I am anecdotal evidence.
I am an example of farming and agriculture and while I might not be representative of the whole, I am the personal connection that many people have to their food. When one my friends are asked about cattle ranching or beef, they can share with their friends, “Well, my friend Kiah has a cattle ranch and she said…” Being the anecdotal evidence is an honor, and in many ways is a great responsibility. The greatest tool I have is being able to share my own personal agriculture narrative and my experiences and knowledge having grown up on a ranch. If it is these short, personal stories and tidbits that my friends hear from me, or experiences that they take with them after visiting my ranch or another farm, it’s important that I am able to share an honest, positive view of agriculture. For many, I am their only connection and for that reason, I vow to fully embrace my "farm goddess."
Hearing real stories from real people is often times more impactful than reading statistics in a peer-reviewed journal. I am so inspired by my fellow agriculturalists from across the country openly sharing their world and life in agriculture and I am honored to be a small part of it. If you want to meet (virtually) some of America’s amazing farmers and ranchers telling their stories, check out this list of farm and ag bloggers!
For more from the CFI conference, check out this article.