I grew up on a farm. Where my father grew up as well. My parents worked on that farm for 50 years. At the time, I assumed I was living a normal American experience; American farmers grew America’s food. It turns out that today in the U.S., only one person in one thousand is responsible for about 85% of what we eat. Farmers are increasingly rare–for some consumers, almost a mythical being. These days, my interactions with farmers consists primarily of those I follow on Twitter, and the folks who stand behind the tables at my local farmers market. But it’s as true in San Francisco as it is in the small town where I was raised: the best way to get to know someone is to talk with them. Face to face. One on one.
That’s why I was a little surprised by the recent news that Monsanto and other big agribusiness corporations have launched big communication campaigns celebrating the American farmer, and themselves indirectly. First I should say I fully support folks with money championing the tradition that is the family farm in America. I know in my bones that every one of those farmers works hard, harder than just about anybody I can think of. But I’m surprised by the campaign for a couple simple reasons:
1. Big budgets and slick ads seem antithetical to many of the lessons I learned on the farm: Do more with less. Walk, don’t talk. Don’t be flashy. Just the notion of an advertising campaign seems to be ‘off-brand’ for many of the farmers that I know. If you focus on the communications, rather than the action, you’re in danger of being tagged “all hat and no cattle.” (And that isn’t a compliment where I’m from.)
2. If the best way to judge the nature of a person’s character is through a conversation, then advertising to make people love the family farmer is going about it the wrong way. Building brands and brand perceptions these days through conversations is easy. Call it social media, call it Web 2.0, call it “activating your advocates.” No matter what you call it, getting the 999 of us that consume food to personally know the one person out of 1000 that grows our food can only help both farmers and consumers. And that doesn’t require a multi-million dollar, multi-corporate funded ad campaign to enable.
Besides, you might find you actually want to get your hands dirty. And every farmer I know could use another set of hands.