By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: Your neighbor and friend that’s more focused on food than ever before just wants to know that you, the modern-day farmer and/or rancher producing their food, care. Do you?

Of course, you’ll answer in the affirmative. But often the way we respond to consumer questions comes off defensive, arrogant and indifferent. A one-day workshop put on by the Gladstone, Missouri-based Center for Food Integrity last Friday at the Arizona Farm Bureau offices helped a room full of farmers and industry professionals improve the way we interact with customers.

Our Engage workbook listed out 40 values that we were asked to prioritize in our own lives. Then, when visiting with others seek out common values; common ground. 

And since so many of you who were unable to attend asked for a full report, here goes.

Bottom line: We’re failing at Communication

For more than eight years now, The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) has been studying consumer behavior. And while there are signs of improved attitudes by consumers, the Center also is highlighting how we have to improve the way we engage with consumers, at its core those we may interact with.

In the 2014 study it was found that after reading information about genetically modified ingredients in food and antibiotic use in animal agriculture by each of the three voices (moms, millennials and foodies), trust in the Mom Scientist and Government Scientist remained strong while the Peer lost trust. This indicates that once shared values have been established, having technical expertise and a credential build credibility when communicating technical information. Further, the research also revealed respondents’ trusted sources for food system information. Websites rank highest for moms, millennials and foodies. The second choice for moms is local television stations, while millennials and foodies prefer friends (not online). Food-specific TV programs and networks are important sources for foodies.

CFI discovered that when consumers discover our “shared values” we’re able to trust one another. By leading a public discussion on trust, CFI is helping various stakeholders in the food industry connect with consumers in a meaningful way with a unified voice and address the issues consumers care about most.

Last Friday’s “Engage” workshop helped participants figure out a way to do this.

Identify your Value System

In the beginning class participants were asked to circle their top three values out of a list of about 40, a hard enough task when you see more than three that are part of your beliefs. CFI points out that communicating with values is critical to connecting with important audiences. In fact, when individuals identify with common values during a conversation, especially one that might be difficult, they can find common ground and possibly even agreement no matter how difficult the topic is being discussed.

A whole list of values included well-known ones like peace, wisdom, status, family, authenticity, joy, happiness, success, integrity, spirituality, loyalty, commitment, compassion, balance and more.

Shared values are three to five times more important to the consumer than competence. In the Famous words of Teddy Roosevelt, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

How we get to agreement is through common values.

And, in order to figure out peoples' shared values, we’ve got to listen. But for years, we’ve been taught in the industry to rattle off a set of scientific facts the minute someone says something about our industry, especially if it's negative.

First, Be Quiet and Listen

CFI’s three step process for engaging in meaningful conversation is to …

  1. Listen – Actively listen, without judgment, for agreement and points of connection to understand how their concern is tied to their underlying values.
  2. Ask – Ask questions to invite dialogue, clarify their perspective and I would personally add, hunt for those shared values.
  3. Share – Share your values-based perspective and provide relevant information to foster understanding and reinforce connection.

Friday’s workshop required us on several occasions to role play. We were given specific issues to discuss and each time one team member had to be the farmer trying to address the controversial topic posed by the consumer.

What not to say ...

What we should say ...

Personally, what I noticed was our inability to listen and keep asking questions to try and build trust and find common ground. We appeared to always want to give an answer to their comment(s), even when the consumer wasn’t asking a question, they were simply making a statement, oftentimes a controversial statement, but simply a statement.

Even when our main moderator, Roxi Beck, would simply pose comments and randomly pick from the audience, we were always ready with some well-rehearsed industry sound bite. We were in the “ask” phase of conversation, but we didn’t know how to simply ask questions of the consumer.

“How long has it been drilled into us to have a bumper sticker comment to a consumer?” said Peggy Jo Goodfellow, marketing manager for Arizona Farm Bureau and a participant during Friday’s workshop. We both concluded, “Forever!”

While CFI doesn’t often stress this point, one takeaway for me was that until I find a common value with a consumer when in discussion, for example compassion, I really shouldn’t move forward with answers and explanations about why we do what we do in farming and ranching until the consumer feels like I am on the same level of compassion that they are on.

You might tell me, “Julie I don’t have time to engage in that level of a dialogue with a consumer.” These conversations move faster than we think. More importantly, we may not be able to afford not to be in these discussions. We keep reminding ourselves that if we lose the public’s trust, we lose.

Ultimately, It Boils Down to “The Golden Rule”

So many of us are driven by a faith-based focus that have helped define our values. So, then it shouldn’t be hard for us to remember the famous words of scripture, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This was reinforced with me this weekend during my pastor, Chad Moore’s new series, “Relat(able).” Obviously, I need a double dose of insights; perhaps I’m a tough nut to crack on this topic. But Sun Valley Community Church’s Moore put this in a way that should be easy for any of us to do.

His is a four-point approach to making oneself relatable and relational to anyone we talk to.

  1. Build trust. You build trust with truth. All healthy relationships have some confrontation. So be honest with your relationships; be transparent.
  2. Avoid picking a fight. Watch your mouth. Proverbs 18:6 says, “The lips of fools bring them strife and their mouths invite a beating.” Wise people think before they talk.
  3. Validate other’s feelings. Feelings are not facts, so why are we arguing over feelings? Instead, ask a question: Why do you feel that way? To listen is to love. (This points to why we can’t win when we’re trying to throw a bunch of industry facts at someone, when at the moment their feelings may be the thing we’re supposed to identify with first.)
  4. Be gracious. Don’t give people what they deserve, give them what they need. If we are to have healthy relationships, we have to learn to give grace and receive it.

I make no excuses anymore for advocating for a more thoughtful approach to our consumer engagement. And, yes, we can call it “touchy, feely” stuff. But, when the experts are telling us to engage with more grace, then we better do it.

Special Note

In addition to the CFI Engage training, there are a variety of great resources available to help you engage online:

  • – Find values-based messages and the latest updates on industry event.
  • – From silly to sciencey, we’ve got the facts on all things food, direct from a panel of about 200 experts. Got a tough question you need answered? Ask us here and we’ll get an expert to respond.
  • – A one-stop shop for biotech questions.
  • – Where farm women connect with their urban and suburban counterparts to explain what happens on the farm.
  • – See what USFRA is up to as they connect media, farmers and experts on multiple food system topics.
  • Meet America’s Farmers – Check out videos of farmers using values as they showcase modern agriculture.

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