If you’re reading this, you’ve likely got a huge responsibility. You’re interested in agriculture, particularly specialty crops, especially fruit, and that means you care. You care about fruit growers in a country where fewer than 2% are involved in agriculture, meaning most people are largely ignorant of it. Who’s going to educate those people? You are, because if you don’t, no one will.
I got to thinking about that in preparing to fly back to Chicago in late August for U.S. Apple Association’s annual Apple Crop Outlook & Marketing Conference. I go back every year to present the Apple Grower of the Year award, hear the crop reports from not only the various U.S. apple-growing regions, but from around the world. There are also updates on hot topics. This year it was NAFTA, and to summarize, apple growers should heartily support such trade agreements, as NAFTA has been a tremendous boon.
But this year’s meeting year was a little different, as I participated in a panel myself: “Ask the Experts: Media Panel Discussion on Today’s Newsroom.” It was the idea of the president and CEO of USApple, Jim Bair, who clearly was delighted by the prospect of seeing journalists squirm for a change. (Actually those of us on the panel represented industry-friendly business media, a far cry from consumer news providers, but Jim’s still sore about being misquoted by one of those providers.)
I spent about 90 minutes in the airport waiting for my flight, and for much of that time, I kept half an eye on the restaurant that most prominently featured fruit. While it was breakfast time, even bananas weren’t selling (though sugary muffins were flying off the shelves). Many people in this country not only don’t consume fruit, many more have no idea how it’s produced and what that entails. If that level of ignorance continues to rise as a percentage of the population, growers are going to face massive problems, as it will be difficult to find the political will to withstand the onslaught.
When Jim asked the panel about the newsroom of today, it became even clearer. See, as TV and newspaper staffs get smaller, they are losing “beats,” or areas of focus, like agriculture. As it is, most reporters for the larger news gathering organizations in the U.S. come from urban or suburban backgrounds. In other words, they know zilch about agriculture.
So, as I told the crowd, you are going to have to take it upon yourself to educate people, especially those in the media. Be open, be honest — sure, be guarded, it’s reality, folks — but most of all, take the time to explain.
I think you growers have a special responsibility.
First, there’s the obvious: You make it happen. Most people involved in agriculture are involved in affiliated industries, from crop protection and nutrition to processing and packing, but none would exist if it weren’t for the actual producers.
Second, agriculture itself might not have the greatest image in largely urban America, but individual growers do. A recent poll showed farmers have an 88% positive rating. People want to hear you — contrary to what some of you have told me — but you have to speak up.
Use the media especially, but really, this applies to everyone you meet. The chief of the California Farm Bureau, Paul Wenger, a nut grower, shared this with me a few years ago: “When you’re on a plane, when you’re in line at the movie theater, tell people who you are,” he said. “The best thing you can do is reach out, shake hands, and tell people, ‘I’m a farmer, and this is what I do.’”