Hello again CLA readers. I hope your summer went well. As for me, I enjoyed meeting staff from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and both the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture during our Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program’s (CALP) trip to Washington D.C. last month. I’m continually learning about agriculture, multiple viewpoints, and bridging communication between urban and rural perspectives. Our class also visited the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) Following the meeting, we better understood HSUS goals and how media, on all sides, can sometimes sway our views. One goal of this trip was to learn about speaking, listening, and interacting productively with others that have views different from ours. For me, that’s one of the best aspects of my CALP experience.
Speaking of communication. Here’s a question for you: As experts in your industries, how do you tell the story that Agriculturalists are environmental stewards in their daily work across Colorado?
“Communication can be a challenge.”
That’s an understatement. While learning about agriculture in CALP, and in my daily work at EPA Region 8, I’ve learned that agriculture is varied, even across the same industry, same county, or even across the same rural highway. Consumers’ understanding of what terms mean is also varied. One example that many of you will be familiar with are the meanings and perceptions about the words “large-scale” or “industrial” agriculture. I love to tell my non-ag friends and colleagues that many large-scale operations are family-owned. Recently, I looked up the statistics about some of these ideas. You probably know that most farmland in the U.S. continues to be owner-operated at 61% (USDA, ERS, 2014) while 11% of non-operator owned farmland is owned by corporations (USDA, ERS Website Updated 2019).
Why am I telling you things you already know? It’s about communicating to your desired audience. There are so many good news stories that I’ve heard about livestock operations reducing waste, reusing materials, saving water, saving energy, etc., but I don’t think the general public, especially consumers, hear those stories very often.
Earlier this year I visited with Mary and Chris Kraft at Quail Ridge Dairy in Fort Morgan, CO. Mary later told me more about her industry:
Byproduct feeds [like wheat middlings, spent grain, whole cottonseed, soybean byproducts] came into play in the dairy industry 20-30 years ago as we developed methods for understanding how digestion works in cows, and manufacturing processes improved. Many of these feeds used to be burned or put in landfills. Cows have a unique ability to consume those byproducts and produce a highly concentrated, filtered, wholesome product that humans can enjoy throughout their entire lives!… We feed many items that are recycled, including whole cottonseed left over from making [cloth] fibers for your shirt, soybean meal and hulls left over from [manufacturing], wheat mids from making flour, corn gluten feed from making high fructose corn syrup for soda pop, and dry distiller’s grain left over from making ethanol. All of these items are blended together to balance the cow’s diet with wet brewer’s grain left over from making beer (all of the alcohol is out!)… Even the water we draw through the dairy cools the milk which is harvested from a cow at 101 degrees F… [and] the heat from the cows’ milk is stored in a heat [thermos] to clean out the barn when cleaned with hot water.
You may have heard this information before, but Mary’s explanations put the information in a story that consumers can relate to in their daily lives (e.g., your shirt, flour, soda pop, thermos, etc.).
This is customized communication.
In my work at EPA Region 8 helping communities reduce materials going to landfills, I offer trainings about community-based messaging. When you are trying to communicate to consumers for behavior change, I’d politely suggest using the following strategies: 1) Select your audience – make it specific. 2) Select the one behavior you’d like them to do. 3) Then consider the barriers that specific audience has to doing that one behavior… keeping in mind that all the barriers are valid from that audience’s perspective. 4) Customize your messaging and strategies to address those barriers.
Certainly, not all barriers can be addressed, but you know best what barriers you can offset by messaging the benefits / incentives for your audience. A barrier could be a lack of knowledge, something perceived as too difficult to do, or the audience perceives they are too busy to figure out how to do the behavior change. Strategies to address barriers can include education (but don’t rely on this exclusively), finding someone your audience trusts to distribute the message for you, and getting a public pledge to action. 5) Test your messages, adjust, and scale-up.
This approach is called community-based social marketing, and has its history in improving community health, but is applicable to any audience. A quick Google search can provide you with lots of free resources and ideas. You are also very welcome to contact me to brainstorm as well. In this article is a graphic to help keep all the components in mind. You can also remember an acronym, B.A.B.B.S. – Behavior, Audience, Barriers, Benefits, Strategies. Even keeping just a few of these ideas in mind can be useful when communicating to consumers for desired change.
Mary’s story above can be placed in a community-based social marketing example. We will assume her audience is an urban consumer. His name is Jack. Jack doesn’t want to buy milk because of his perception that modern dairies are not good for the environment in any way. Through Mary’s examples of “telling the story in the data”, she’s addressing Jack’s barrier in multiple ways: 1) Jack learns that Mary’s dairy reduces waste from other industries to grow an efficient product 2) reduces energy wasted and 3) reduces water wasted. Through this type of messaging, for example, you could also find someone Jack trusts to show him around the dairy. For the desired behavior, you could invite Jack to make a public pledge to buy cow’s milk once monthly. Jack’s behavior starts to change. This happens slowly. Habits take time to change (as we all know when we make New Year’s Resolutions in January and February rolls around…).
There are so many good news stories that consumers can’t comprehend as they see the blur of agriculture pass by while they drive along on the highway – unless they hear it from the source – experts like you.
To wrap up, I’d say that I know it’s tiring to tell your story and can be frustrating to feel you have to “justify” the hard work, care, stress, labor, and time you and your families put into growing food for our country… but don’t stop telling your good stories. How can we, as consumers understand, appreciate, or value all you do, if we don’t know agriculture, don’t hear customized messages, and don’t understand what you do? Community-based social marketing can help you tell your story in a way that it can be received by a consumer towards behavior change. I, for one, really love hearing your stories and I hope to hear more.
Virginia Till works at EPA Region 8 (Denver, CO) to reduce food going to landfills and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.