‘Awkward conversations’ key to changing minds, speaker says

IMG_2479 (1)“We’re going to talk about something a little uncomfortable,” announced agriculture communicator and social media influencer Janice Person.

She was leading a Dec. 3 discussion titled Stepping into the Uncomfortable at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation 2019 Annual Convention in Norfolk. Person was teaching farmers how they can have productive discussions about modern agriculture with friends, family and strangers.

“It’s like you’re an awkward kid in the first day of junior high again. It’s so hard to step up and have conversations with people who don’t understand modern agriculture,” Person said. “But the 98% of Americans who don’t farm for a living can really have an impact on our businesses and lives,” so it’s important for farmers to engage them.

She added that food is often an emotional topic. “People project all sorts of values onto the food they consume. Values such as organic versus conventional, locally grown versus mass-produced, non-GMO or not. Food discussions are often uncomfortable simply because it’s easy to have a clash of values. All of us value what we hold dear.”

Her advice to farmers was to decide whether they have the time and patience to engage someone who has negative attitudes toward modern farming techniques. If they do, they need to ask questions to determine values about which the other person is passionate. And then they should seek common ground.

“They may have said something that you consider a negative allegation about farmers, but they may just think they’re stating the obvious,” Person explained. “And asking them for a little more information can help you understand where they are coming from. Is it about food safety? Is it about a child that has (a medical) issue? Is it about protecting the environment? Is it about something else?”

The goal of asking questions is to help share values and start a conversation, not win an argument, she said.

“If somebody is really emotional about something, and you just want to give them a solution, they will reject it. They have to know that you care before they care what you know.”

During the workshop, participants shared examples of difficult conversations about pesticide use, organic foods and dairy farming. Person talked through those discussions and suggested ways to better connect with non-farmers next time. Patience is key, she said.

“Seriously, most Americans don’t have a clue how agriculture works. If they have any experience, it may have been watching a documentary, or going to a pumpkin patch or a berry patch,” she explained. “Maybe their only experience may have been a corn maze. It’s so far removed from what most of us deep in agriculture think of as farming.”

Topics like the rapid loss of farmland, difficulties facing young farmers trying to get started and marketing clashes between organic and conventional farmers are some of the issues that most Americans have very little information about. Person said it’s up to farmers to share that information.

“We’re always so busy at planting and harvest season, it’s hard to stop and chat when you see a car parked by your field. Safety is always a concern, but frequently we can stop to talk to somebody for a few minutes. And if they can see and touch your machinery, you can change not only their minds, but now they have an incredible story to tell everyone they know.”

Person is founder of JPlovesCOTTON LLC and is known for her tweets and blogging about her favorite fiber. A fourth-generation city girl from Memphis, she has worked for agriculture magazines, a New York City public relations agency, a seed company and a global leader in biotechnology. Her latest social media endeavor is a podcast called Grounded by the Farm, featuring discussions on food and how it’s grown.

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