View from the Hill

Imagine turning on your television and watching this promotional spot:

Tonight’s all new “Survivor” show pits fiercely independent farmers against fanatical environmentalists. Each sod buster will be teamed up with a tree hugger, while both are tied to a Redwood tree-not on the ground, but 100 feet in the air. Each person will be standing on a small platform.

But wait, if you think this is exciting, it gets even better. In one hand, they both have a remote control device that allows them to activate a trap door under their opponent and send that opponent to his or her death. In the other hand, they must hold a two-gallon pail full of highly toxic pesticide.

Who knows what will happen! Come, watch these two arch enemies fight to the death-or make peace so they both survive and save Planet Earth!”

Now that’s a “Survivor” show some diehard fans might even watch.

It also would get more national media attention than did the recent Ag Day 2002 I participated in last March in Chicago.

While a group of farmers and journalists engaged in meaningful dialogue inside a downtown television studio, elsewhere, life continued as usual. No national media were present to cover this story. We didn’t even register a blip on their radar screen.

The challenge to farmers-to capture the public’s attention-is formidable. The challenge to improve the farmer’s image in the eyes of the consumer seems even more daunting.

The process of educating the mostly urban American consumer became a learning process of our own, for farmer-panelists and journalists alike.

For instance, when it comes to food-purchasing decisions, we learned that female readers of a major women’s magazine (published by the Meredith Corp.) were dominated by one factor: the food must taste good. It outpaced all other concerns, including convenience, safety and environmental issues.

I was skeptical at first, but as the discussion evolved, I understood when I compared the Meredith journalist’s claims to my own choices. My buying habits are heavily influenced by taste. I love the spicy flavor of Applebee’s “Bourbon Street Steak.” But if I get a steak that is not made to my preferences, chances are I will look elsewhere the next time I eat out.

Another issue that presented itself was environmentalists’ allegations that farmers were either unable or unwilling to care for the environment, and that farmers were clueless to the impact their farm operations had on the environment.

Farm panelists’ responses to these allegations were factual and convincing-at least to me and the small-town, agriculturally savvy journalists. My sense was they were “preaching to the choir.”

As the discussion wore on, a journalist reminded us that sensationalism grabs the reader and extreme headlines sell papers.

In today’s culture, it matters little that headlines do not always tell the truth, that allegations are not always supported by credible research.

For instance, the Alar scare that destroyed the domestic apple market and severely damaged the domestic apple industry was used as an example. Scientific research clearly did not support the claims that Alar, as it was being used, was harmful to humans.

Another, more recent, example cited was the alleged outbreak of BSE in a herd of cattle in the United States. American livestock producers lost millions of dollars as markets collapsed. Even though the lab tests had not been completed, the journalist who broke the story did not wait to confirm the allegations. The tests were negative, but the impact of the premature and erroneous story was immediate and devastating in the marketplace.

One can only speculate the reasons why the journalist jumped the gun on the story. What seems to matter most these days is capturing the reader’s attention-and altering the reader’s opinion and buying habits.

Most participants of the symposium agreed: If we want to combat negative national press coverage and improve the farmer’s image, we must grab the urban reader’s attention. A dramatic engagement by supporters of farmers is necessary. Otherwise, the facts seem to be boring, irrelevant and not even credible.

So, how does one grab the attention of the urban masses? Good question.

For starters, perhaps we could begin in smaller, less dramatic ways that help to build bridges of communication within the urban media. As mentioned at the Ag Day symposium, farmers and farm groups should organize more “on farm” visits with journalists. One panelist suggested allowing visitors to view herbicide application records, to support farmer’s claims of responsible, environmental stewardship.

If that doesn’t get media attention, more dramatic ways to capture the reader’s imagination should be explored.

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