Agriculture has some work to do

Recently in my article on CNN’s Eatocracy, I noted the need for a more balanced education for customers, but this fully applies to the agriculture community as well. It’s a work in progress for myself, and I’ve been reaching out for more candid conversations with those outside of agriculture production for their thoughts.

So here are a few of my reflections from these conversations. Some may not agree with these thoughts and they do not reflect all beef producers or all customers, but they’re my own and I feel the need to share them.

I’m pretty passionate about emphasizing the need for better conversation  between customers and the agriculture community. Many times we become too dependent on facts, figures, and key phrases that become mundane and over-used. Don’t get me wrong, those are great facts that our customers need to hear, but we shouldn’t solely depend on them. You wouldn’t enjoy a conversation with someone who did nothing but react defensively with facts and figures. If I want that, I’ll go sit in on a college lecture. It’s a conversation, be a person.

I had an interesting conversation on the 4th of July. Somehow, I ended up at a BBQ with some friends and co-workers, and wound up being the only person who really supported the beef industry. The others were all well-educated in the sciences and animal production, but didn’t have a positive feeling about consuming beef. Maybe out of my comfort zone, but something that needs to be done more frequently. I did more listening and asking questions than talking. It was an interesting conversation that really made my wheels start turning.

In the beef cattle community, we rely a lot on tradition. Cattle raisers in this country have a strong heritage and ties to the land, but in some ways I believe we’ve allowed this heritage to hold us back. During the course of my conversation over the grill, I was reminded that beef production carries a negative impression with many Americans, and that’s something farmers need to become aware of.

Cattle farmers (as a whole) have made great strides in recent years in animal handling, sustainability, and food safety, but we still have a LONG LONG LONG row to hoe when it comes to listening to what consumers want to see happen in food production. What has happened in the past doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we can change for a better future.

The beef cattle community is the most fragmented when it comes to protein production. We have more small, family producers than any other livestock animal, more diversity in breed and type of production than most others. We also have many producers who raise cattle part-time and do not pay enough attention to BQA guidelines or environmental impacts (BQA is one of our weaker spots. There is no valid reason why more producers aren’t involved in this or similar programs). Too often sustainability is measured by how many years a farm has operated, rather than current and future management practices. I don’t want to cast a shadow over beef cattle producers or say that we’re doing wrong. We’re doing a fantastic job. But there is ALWAYS room for improvement.

We need to better understand alternative methods of production, so we can better understand why we choose our own management practices. We need to better understand what our customer is asking, so we can understand what questions need to be addressed through better communication of production practices or adjusting those practices.

Our future doesn’t necessarily rely on what we’ve done in the past, but rather how we can adapt to changing conditions. My generation’s job will be to address these changes, adapt to better communication with the customer, and figure out how to hold on to our heritage at the same time.

Once again, Some may not agree with these thoughts and they do not reflect all beef producers or all customers, but they’re my own reflections from a number of candid conversations with consumers from outside beef production.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”

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  1. Oops I posted my comment to this article on your blog post about your CNN article, sorry too many tabs opened!

    Good post Ryan and good points. You are correct about the communication but after reading many of the comments on your CNN article it is very discouraging to me. When someones first response to an article like yours is “meat is murder” or “obviously this guy is owned by Monsanto,Big Ag etc etc, it makes very difficult to continue in a conversation with them.

    I give you huge kudos though for your thoughtful and non emotion driven responses even to those that were short on facts and big on emotion in bashing you and our industry. Always taking the high road is not the easiest thing to do and you certainly did. Hopefully the saving grace is the people that will actually consume beef for the most part have a desire to learn and we can engage with these people in constructive dialogue. As for those driven solely by emotions especially anger and envy we can take comfort in the fact that those of us in the beef industry get to lead happy and honest lives without the emotional baggage,

    1. Thanks Larry. And no problem, it’s cleared up.

      It can be difficult to respond to comments like those on CNN, but I never respond the first time I read them in a situation like that. I remove myself from the heat of the moment, think about it, and come back later. It’s important to think about the context of the conversation and the commenter’s motives before responding. Is he/she open to having a conversation, is it a sincere concern or is the person firing off just to leave a comment?

      It’s incredibly difficult to leave the science behind in a dialogue. Even more frustrating when the other person uses science, twisting the facts to tell their own story. When it gets to a mud slinging stage, it’s best to step away. The internet can be used to twist numbers to say anything a person wants these days.

  2. Ryan, I wholeheartedly agree. So do consumers. They want farmers and ranchers to listen to their questions and concerns and continuously improve the way we raise and grow food. The good news is American agriculture has always been about innovation and improvements in farming and ranching. The bad news is we haven’t done a great job of listening. That is changing thanks to the commitment of people like you who are ebgaging consumers in a conversation about food. Keep up the good work!

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