By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Outreach Director: In June, I met Monsanto’s Director of Millennial Engagement, Vance Crowe. Over lunch at American Farm Bureau Federation’s Communication Conference we had a very interesting conversation.

Crowe gave me an insightful perspective on tribes, how millennials approach their life (yes, he is a millennial) and what insights the agriculture community can glean from this knowledge.

In fact, Crowe believes agriculture, as an industry, is best positioned to facilitate this demographic segment of the U.S. population, a demographic bigger than the Baby Boomers.

Having spoken to 35,000 people in the last 3 years, Vance Crowe believes agriculture is best suited to turn today’s young dreamers into tomorrow’s inspired builders.

As a result of June’s lunch conversation, I solicited Crowe to be part of our conversation series. Here’s why engaging this creative, yet sometimes self-doubting demographic, matters.

Arizona Agriculture: Give an overview of your background.

Crowe: I grew up as the middle child of seven in a small town in Central Illinois. While I was surrounded by farming and even knew hog, cattle, dairy and grain farmers I really had no idea about the tribe that is “agriculture.” I might as well have been living in downtown New York City for how much I knew about where my food came from.

Like a lot of young people who have grown up in the relative safety and abundance of the western world I had literally no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. My parents [a stockbroker father and teacher mother] had given me the greatest of gifts; the opportunity to grow up to be whatever I wanted. I need only provide the desire and the effort and I could go as far as my intellect would allow me. But this gift is often a double-edged sword. On the one hand I can grow up to be whatever I want, true freedom. But on the other hand that meant that the responsibility for deciding what profession would make my life worth living was squarely on me. This made me scared, and so when I went to college I didn’t go with a goal to learn something I instead went looking for someone to tell me what I could do to be considered good or worthy.

Lots of young people pursue college in this way and it makes them vulnerable to professors that want to instill an ideology rather than teach tangible skills. I studied communications and sociology and I learned a lot but I have to confess I came out of school even more scared than when I entered. As I graduated I realized I didn’t really have many skills but I felt an unrelenting pressure to be doing something “good.” This sent me on the quest to discover what occupation I could take on that would be “good.”  So I ran a camp for inner city kids, became a deckhand on an ecotourism ship, joined the U.S. Peace Corps and moved to Africa, came back and worked in a community public radio station in Northern California and then went to graduate school to study cross-cultural negotiations.

After graduate school I went to work at the World Bank. That place was far more political than I ever imagined and I wanted something else, something that was more focused on solving real problems. Ultimately, I left the World Bank when I got married and my wife and I moved to St Louis so that she could change careers from Aerospace Engineering in the defense industry to physical therapy. I started a small communications company helping make complex ideas simple to understand. I eventually spotted the job posting for a Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto and I thought to myself “here is the chance for me to see inside of this dark and scary place.” 

I took the interview because who doesn’t want to see inside of Willy Wanka’s Chocolate Factory? I didn’t want the job but I thought the interview would be fun. During the interview I didn’t answer very many of their questions, instead I used the time to ask my interviewers all sorts of questions about Monsanto and their work. I got all the way to the end of the interview and the woman who was doing the hiring asked me if I had any more questions and I said, “Yes, if this is a new position, how are you going to train someone to be this ‘Director of Millennial Engagement?’”

The woman paused and then replied, “I would train whoever we hire differently. For you, since you have been so curious I think that I would set you up with a list of fifty people from throughout the company; geneticists, breeders, chemists, biologist, entomologists, customers, attorneys, growers, and once you had a chance to speak with them, you will sit down to talk with me. We will talk and figure out what you do and don’t know about agriculture and then I will draw up another list of fifty more people for you to go learn from.”

In that moment, I realized that I had just stumbled upon the greatest opportunity of my entire life. Monsanto was going to let me search throughout the company talking with anyone I thought was interesting and secretly I thought that if I discovered that they were doing things badly, that they were the company that everyone thought that they were, then I would learn everything and then go write the greatest tell-all-book of all time. But if they weren’t what the general public thought of them, then I had just uncovered one of the greatest challenges of our time. How will we bridge the divide between the farmers and companies using the most advanced technology to grow food, clothing and fuel more bountifully than at any other time in history and the people that have been made to feel afraid. I took the job.

Now, I spend my time finding the most advance audiences that I can find and I don’t try to convince them of anything. I use those stages (I have spoken to more than 35,000 people in the last three years) to put forward my understanding of the world and I ask my audience to help me find the cracks in what I articulate. Every correction on the part of the audience makes my understanding of the world that much clearer. Every step along the way gets me in front of increasingly knowledgeable and interested people. I have the great joy of finding out if what I am told is really true. It is an amazing thing to be able to test your ideas in live, sometimes hostile, audiences. Because the person that is most likely to wake you up when you are wrong may be your friend, but more often than not, it’s your critics that will wake you up.

Arizona Agriculture: Explain what farmers and ranchers need to understand about what you call "tribes."

Crowe: For the first several million years that humans existed our friendship extended barely outside of our kin. Only 10,000 years ago did humans develop the field of agriculture. Once we had agriculture previously hunter gather societies could start improving their access to calories. Once a single person can produce more food than they need then they are in a position to trade their food for other’s specialized products. Now villages could be created and new social norms about how we interact with people that aren’t our kin had to be established. For the next 10,000 years humans developed tribes based on where they lived, but the internet has wildly changed this paradigm because now we have thousands of farmers that talk regularly with one another on Twitter and others that make videos that are really engaging. This means a culture is emerging with leaders, inside jokes, customs, and hero stories for any cluster of people that get together on places like Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat.

These clusters of people can be thought of as your tribe and the value in knowing this, helps you understand that most of the opinions people have about the world is not driven by data but instead how the tribe feels about a subject. These people don’t even realize that they themselves are in a tribe or that other tribes could exist and that should inform how you talk with them.

Farmers need to understand that it isn’t just about “telling your own story.” It’s about being curious enough about other people that they want to hear about you. Once you have built trust by showing genuine interest you will see their receptivity and connection with you and how you do things in ways you couldn’t imagine. They will become force multipliers in promoting your agriculture because they will want to defend your work because you are a farmer that is in their tribe. This is what will change minds.

Arizona Agriculture: And, in keeping "tribes" in mind, you may be aware of how much preaching is done to farmers and ranchers that they must "tell their story." So they have, and yet, often the story falls on deaf ears. Why?

Crowe: I was listening to the “Farmer and The City Girl” podcast with Rob Sharkey [The Farmer] and Sharkey and co-host Carrie Zylka discussed how if you just walk up to people and suddenly start telling them your story you’ll seem arrogant and self-centered. Sharkey went on to say that yes, farmers need to be prepared to tell their story but what they really need to do is start genuine conversations with people outside their community. Be interested in other people so that they will be interested in you. That’s the key takeaway. The starting message was you’ve got to be ready to tell your story but the next step after you’re ready to tell the story is to find ways to engage with other people where you are engaging on their terms.

Farmers are already in an awkward situation when they’re talking to people they don’t know outside of their community and on top of that people are asking them to do something that’s really unnatural for them. This is the way we evolve this effort.

It’s not just about telling their farm or ranch story to other tribes. It’s also about the when and how.

Arizona Agriculture: You and I had a fascinating conversation earlier this summer about the tension going on among young people right now? Explain why the agriculture community needs to be cognizant of this tension.

Crowe: Culture is always changing and sometimes it’s changing in more dramatic ways than others. I describe culture as a wave, eventually a number of ideas get into a pattern and they build into a wave that comes crashing onto the shore of society. Before that happens there is a change that takes place from the old way of thinking to the new way of thinking.

One of the things that I have seen in the last year is that we have more and more young people on the farms and in the cities looking around saying, “This path that we’ve been on, complaining about what we don’t have or don’t think is right with the world, that doesn’t sit well with me. I want to do something more active.”

They are saying, “Instead of demanding that other people give me things, I am going to try and shoulder responsibility. I’m going to pick up rocks that are problems that I see in the world and I’m going to put them on my shoulder and as I get better at carrying one rock I can get stronger and be able to carry the next size rock.”

There is a difference between the people making demands and the people shouldering responsibilities, I think this is going to come to a head on college campuses. We’ve seen a lot of programs pop up that are teaching kids what’s wrong with the world but they’re not necessarily focused on how do you actually do your part to fix it. What many professors are saying is, “Go out, hold signs and shout.”

But, we have a new generation of people that feel this is not going to be satisfying to them. They’re going to come to college and they’re going to demand to get education in things that can help them shoulder responsibility, so they can solve problems.

I believe this will be a cultural shift. It’s important for the agriculture community to be aware of it because ag is best poised to take those young people that say they want to make a difference in the world and give them the training they need to go build tall. Build things that will last a long time as opposed to standing out and holding signs.

Young people are self-organizing into new tribes. Tribes that did not exist before. This will prompt change because they’ll be able to organize in ways that they have not in the past.

Arizona Agriculture: With all this in mind, give us in Arizona agriculture an overview strategy?

Crowe: I recently had an opportunity to speak to the FFA Washington Leadership Conference. 350 kids that decided that they want to be a leader. In learning more about this youth organization, I’ve heard that there are more FFA chapters in the United States than there are Wal Mart stores. When you think about it that’s pretty profound because the amount of people that interact with every Wal Mart store, you have that same decentralized network for engagement in agriculture.

I believe FFA has a tremendous opportunity because you are already embedded in the schools and yet you are not obligated to fulfill the educational mandates that the teachers do, such as their core curriculum requirements. So if you want kids to learn more about agriculture and think better about the industry and biosciences, as a teacher, you have to fight through giant, granite mountains of bureaucracy to get something changed.

But agriculture right now has a back door into most high schools in the country through FFA. We should build on the fact that FFA is a place where young people actually get the skills they can use to solve the most important problems. Simultaneously, Arizona agriculture should allow FFA the flexibility to become the brand that means something in the minds of the young people that are the builders. The image of who is a FFA’er must and is changing. If that brand becomes a symbol of the builders, it will force multiply every single year cranking out tens of thousands of young people that know and understand what they can do to change the world.

As individuals, if you are on a farm you automatically have something you can be teaching farm kids that are in FFA or kids that are from the city that join the FFA. What we really have to do is push those organizations so that they are not trapped in their history but move to the next stage of greatness because of how they are developing people into in the future.

This is an area Arizona agriculture can take action on right away.

Arizona Agriculture: Wanting someone to tell you what you should be, is that a symptom of the millennial generation?

Crowe: Yes. One thing that I believe is tough for farmers to understand is that most people are not builders. If you grow up in the city, unless you grow up in a trade, you often don’t have a sense that you can do something, build something or be something. That culture of “ability” is not being handed down, father to son, and mother to daughter.

And, because we were told all our lives we can grow up to be anything we want, it creates a weird pressure on young people because what they really want is the respect of their peers and the respect of people that they respect. Young people don’t intuitively know how to get that respect so they look for someone who can tell you how to get that. This creates a vulnerable population.

A lot of young people today aren’t working towards a mastery of a skill or profession. So, they go looking for someone to tell them that they are good instead of becoming masters at something. Subsequently, many don’t get that sense of confidence that your get from mastery.

Therein lies the value of agriculture teachers and the FFA that can teach you how to master something, some skill. No activist group on the planet has as sophisticated of a program, the potential, as Arizona agriculture and the FFA, to teach young people to be masters of their own destiny.

Arizona Agriculture: Despite our challenges of engaging Arizona families with the full scope of agriculture, are we gaining traction? In other words, will the diverse variety of tribes will they ever be able to embrace all the diverse ways modern agriculture operates?

Crowe: There is something interesting going on and I don’t have the answer for it but I can tell you that I have observed in the farming community, or tribe, you have a tradition of saying you cannot criticize how another person grows. You tell yourself, you don’t really know their situation, and you don’t really know what’s going on with them. All forms of agriculture in the United States are safe. We appreciate them.

However, what ends up happening in the real world where goods get sold, the retailors are creating a differentiation. That differentiation in the mind of consumers is saying, ‘wait a second is one actually not healthy? Is it poison? Is it going to cause problems for my children?’

That makes the consumer say, ‘Well, I’d be willing to pay more money for the product that I know is safe. So while the farmers themselves are not battling this out, the reason that one farmer that chooses to grow organic or non-GMO and able to get a price premium is not necessarily because of the practices they are using but because of the fear in the market.

We seem to have gotten ourselves in a place where we aren’t willing to talk about whose responsible for increasing the value of these products in the mind of consumers. When you say the differentiation is that one is healthy for you and good for the environment and then by default the other one can’t be. Can you continue to ignore the fact that profit is make because of people are made to feel afraid?

I don’t know how those two things balance. I don’t think it’s a recipe for long-term stability. Farmers should not be afraid of saying why they do what they do and the reason they don’t use the alternative. If you’re not willing to go out and talk about those things then you end up saying nothing at all.

Arizona Agriculture: What's been the most surprising aspect of your role with Monsanto?

Crowe: Probably two things. One, I’m an extrovert on an extreme level. I love people. I love meeting people. I love finding out what they think, testing out ideas and this job gave the chance to talk to so many people that by the end of every week I am completely exhausted. So I spend time with my wife and my dogs and hole up at home because this job is really about getting out and talking to as many people as possible and I never imagined that I personally could get maxed out.

Second, I really did not imagine the feeling of satisfaction that I could derive from representing an industry and company that has such a heavy reputation.

What I’ve found is that people’s fear of their food and how it is grown is like carrying a weight that they don’t want to carry. I’ll get on a plane at the end of a week after traveling and I’ll sit down next to a mother whose been flying around the country maybe selling pharmaceuticals or something. Often, what she’ll want to talk about is her family. When it comes out who I work for, I can sense that she’s very suspicious of the guy from Monsanto. For most of her adult life she has been made to feel guilty and scared that she isn’t doing everything she possibly can to protect her children. There is a lot of pain in the questions I hear, imagining that farmers don’t care well for the land or animals that provide the food in her grocery stores.

The plane provides us time to talk, for her to voice concerns, probe answers, and even learn things that make her fascinated with how far farming has come in just the last few decades alone. We have the time to really dive into something that pervades her thoughts every single day and it is as simple as telling the story of the domestication of broccoli.

By the time we get off the plane, she’s able to say, ‘Oh goodness, I didn’t have to be afraid.’ She leaves that fear and anger she had on the plane. That’s one of the most satisfying feelings another human being can have is to let another human being let go of their fear and anger. Who knows what will happen with that person when they go home but I never imagined that Monsanto would be the place that I could help people feel better about the world that they live in.

Arizona Agriculture: So, where does this put us?

Crowe: This is a conversation that I’ve been very open with you about. We want to see the world blossom in the same way.

The message I would leave with Arizona agriculture is that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity for wonderful change to happen. But the only way for change to happen is for people in agriculture to be out talking to other tribes and giving young people the opportunity to build things in their own way.

I believe that agriculture is finally organized enough to really change the world beyond what you traditionally do in feeding us all. We have to because of all the problems coming down the pipe in places like Arizona where water, land and labor are critical issues. The only way out is through; I believe that we have all the tools placed right in front of us to not just persevere but thrive.

 Editor's Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the August 2017 issue of Arizona Agriculture. 

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