The Value of Agvocacy
Harnessing the voice of agriculture to tell a story
By Jennifer Martin, The Fertilizer Institute
I have been working in agriculture for the past 12 years, and for the 12 years prior to that, I lived on my parent’s farm. Yet, many times I feel like an outsider looking in on an industry that seems foreign to this pseudo farm girl who dreamed of studying journalism and moving to the big city. But, dreams change and life presents other opportunities. So, for the past 12 years, I’ve had to learn about agriculture the old fashioned way – through experience and the help of many people who have shared their stories along the way.
Because I didn’t study agriculture in a formal setting, my education has been shaped by people in the field, in the lab, or even behind an office desk. They might be a farmer. They might be a scientist. They might run a company. They might be a government employee. But, the one thing they all have in common is that they are the ones actually working in agriculture.
While my entire career has been dedicated to communicating about agriculture, I’ve learned that no one wants to hear from me. They want to hear from those who’ve gotten their hands dirty … literally!
According to a 2014 survey sponsored by Bayer CropScience, more than half of American consumers would like to talk to a farmer. However, the vast majority, an overwhelming 94 percent, indicated they have no connection with agriculture or farming. This same survey also found that consumers trust farmers far more than scientists, nutritionists, government, and companies engaged in farming or agriculture.
“Consumers desire the benefits of modern agriculture technology, but they remain apprehensive of it. Farmers can help bridge that gap,” said Jim Blome, president of Bayer CropScience.
This fact, combined with research from the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) on consumer trust in the food space, shows that farmers can and should have an impact on what is communicated about how food is produced in the United States.
Terry Fleck, with CFI spoke to the Agribusiness Council of Indiana earlier this year and highlighted that consumer mistrust of the agriculture industry can be overcome with transparency. “Farmers must be themselves. They need to communicate their values and their story,” he said. “We don’t need a lot of science, just tell people what you do and why.”
Currently, I am the director of public relations and marketing for The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), the leading voice in Washington, D.C. for the fertilizer industry. And once again, I am in the position to be the voice no one wants to hear, especially when it comes to how farmers are using nutrient stewardship practices that help them increase yields and profit while minimizing their impact on the environment.
TFI’s fertilizer sustainability efforts focus on 4R Nutrient Stewardship, an innovative approach for fertilizer best management practices that consider the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of nutrient management. The concept helps farmers use the right nutrient source, at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place.
Raising awareness and adoption of 4R nutrient stewardship is a top priority for the fertilizer industry. The industry is working to educate fertilizer manufacturers and retailers, growers, and agricultural stakeholders about the 4Rs through agricultural trade shows, company visits, speaking engagements and initiatives with stakeholders. While the 4R messages from the fertilizer industry are well received, TFI recognizes that engaging agricultural producers and sharing 4R success stories from the field level play a critical role in 4R nutrient stewardship practice adoption.
The Fertilizer Institute believes the best people to be talking about the 4Rs are the people who implement them. Therefore, TFI identifies 4R Advocates every year who are leading the way when it comes to 4R nutrient stewardship on the farm. Advocates are recognized in pairs: agricultural retailers and the farmers they advise.
Since 2012, the 4R Advocate Program has recognized 25 ag producers and retailers, farming 131,225 acres in 15 states. These forward-thinking individuals serve as examples by championing sound nutrient stewardship.
In the spirit of everything I’ve written above, I am going to let our advocates speak for themselves on the power of using their voice. Here’s what a few of them have had to say about becoming a 4R Advocate.
2015 4R Advocate Kevin Doseck, who works as a crop advisor for Crop Protection Services in Botkins, Ohio, says the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program offers him an easy way to talk about what agriculture is doing in the big picture.
“By making sound agronomy recommendations, we become more of a partner with [our clients],” Doseck said. “The 4Rs also help me talk with those who know little about agriculture and tell them how my customers are improving the environment and doing what’s right for the ground.”
Darin Stolte, a 2016 4R Advocate from Olin, Iowa, applies the 4R principles not only because it is helping him increase his yields and reduce runoff, but it’s setting the right example for other farmers and the community.
“By using the 4Rs, I hope to be a role model for area farmers to teach them that there are better ways to farm,” he said.
David Myerholtz, a 2016 4R Advocate in Gibsonburg, Ohio, says the 4Rs are the right things to be doing, and he continues to use these practices to “help raise the bar for everyone and make all farmers want to do more.”
“The 4R program is a great way for us to help people understand what we are doing to keep agriculture successful and safe,” said Brandon McClure, crop advisor with Morral Companies in Morral, Ohio. “That’s true for those of us involved directly as well for people who may reside near it and for all those who may not realize how they are affected by agriculture. Even though we understand that we are doing things in a safe and productive way, others may not. If we do not highlight what we are doing to keep agriculture safe and bountiful, the very population for whom we are producing healthier food and other products may very well limit where we can go in the future with agriculture.”
Matthew Clements, a grower in Grandview, Idaho, and a 2015 4R Advocate, is an outspoken advocate for not only the 4Rs but agriculture in general. “Advocating for the 4Rs and understanding the balance that it provides makes us better farmers and better members of our community,” he said. Clements has spoken at field days throughout Idaho in an effort to share his work with other growers. Most recently, he spoke to attendees of the Conservation Technology in Action Tour, hosted by the Conservation Technology Innovation Center. He shared how he uses the 4Rs along with other conservation practices to increase the sustainability of the land he farms on.
Advocate pair Malcolm Stambaugh of Agriview FS and grower Alan Madison, both in Walnut, Illinois, have teamed up to share their story with farmers and the public throughout northern Illinois. They started the Nutrient Stewardship of Northern Illinois group to introduce the 4R concept to local farmers. The group meets regularly, communicates with the public via Facebook, and the pair have now hosted two field days on Madison’s farm for the public to get a hands-on look at what they are doing.
“This effort has a lot of people involved,” Stambaugh said. “We want to make our neighbors aware of what we’re doing to keep farming as productive and environmentally friendly as possible. We’ve even paid for signs to put in the fields to let people know what we’re doing and when we’re doing it.”
Madison agrees. He said while technology is critical to improved farm productivity, it’s just as important to use it to tell farmers’ stories to their communities.
“I think that’s a key part of making sure that we are advocates of nutrient stewardship. That we promote what we’re doing and show how it’s working and somehow communicate that to the public,” he said. “We’ve got to get the word out as producers. Here’s what we’re trying to do. Here’s what works. We’re going to make a difference. We’re going to reduce the amount of nutrients going into Lake Erie and into the Gulf and into a lot of these other areas.”
In 2017, TFI will honor its sixth year of 4R Advocates. If you know a crop advisor and grower who are working together to implement the 4R practices in the field, we’d love to hear from you. Nominations are due by October 31, 2016. More information is available at www.nutrientstewardship.com/advocates/become-4r-advocate.
As you can see from our advocates, the agriculture industry has a lot of people with passion for what they do, and they want to do it in a way that is not only good for their farming operations, but for the future of farming as well. We need to harness this passion to tell their story.
*This article was originally featured in the September/October 2016 issue of Fertilizer Focus.