Food conversations can be as easy as a personalized luggage tag

I was on a Delta flight from Orlando to  Atlanta last week. It was a late afternoon flight, full of mid-week business travelers. If you’re headed to Atlanta, there will be several. I was seated between a young woman who was involved in her book and on my right was middle-aged lady working the word puzzles in the day’s papers. No shoulder room for this guy!

Conversations in airports are extremely easy to start; as simple as asking “What are you traveling for?” If someone’s without their headphones, I consider it fair game to at least attempt a friendly discussion. The lady on my right worked with medical insurance claims, and I described my trip to speak with a group of Florida farmers. She quickly asked if I worked with agriculture, and I said “yes ma’am, many kinds.”

The conversation then took a turn that made me hold my breath… She asked, “Have you seen the movie Food Inc.?

I failed to write my thoughts soon enough, but she asked a few questions about food production and if my experience in agriculture makes me worry about the food I eat. I think my response surprised her when I said “what I know makes me feel better about the food we have in this country.

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It’s my opinion that many food “documentaries”, investigative or undercover videos, and information from food activists groups often misrepresents modern agriculture. Take my ongoing series discussing cattle feedlots. I have worked for those “corporate factory farms” that many people describe; actually, two of the largest in the cattle business. I have a few opinions about things that can be improved (more on that later), but from my experience, what I see in films like Food Inc. or videos from groups like HSUS and MFA, does not accurately represent livestock production. These materials are presented in such a way as to depict the entire industry as committing these cruel acts, and as if the majority of the industry allows these cruel acts to continue.

From my many conversations with folks concerned about our food supply, it’s not so much these instances of cruelty that concerns them, rather it’s the system that disturbs them. The average consumer discussing modern food concerns is scared of what they don’t know about where our food comes from (a great example is the One Hundred Meals project).

Conversations centered around food production and raising livestock are so far out of hand, it’s not even funny. It’s downright scary. We have to do a better job of learning before telling folks on the other side of the table they need to know more.

Nothing is more frustrating than when I respond to questions with honest experience from the heart of the cattle business, and folks cannot accept the possibility that I am not lying. Nothing is more frustrating than the person who I really want to reach, comments on the story that I need to learn what real meat production looks like by watching a film about animal cruelty. Nothing is more frustrating than the agriculture advocate telling the concerned customer their position is wrong.

My conversation on the plane ride didn’t go as I would have hoped. This kind lady is concerned about the safety of her food and chooses to buy her food with organic and natural labels. And that’s perfectly fine, I enjoy and encourage food choices. I left with the feeling that in her eyes my method of cattle production is wrong.

It was then that I turned the conversation to family and friends, travel destinations, and asked about her hobbies and listened to her concerns about politics and medical care – topics where we were able to find some common ground.

Before we got off the plane in Atlanta, I handed her my card and asked her to check out my links to farmers across the country as they talk about food topics that she mentioned.

We may all dream up that perfect airplane conversation in our minds and plan out what we’ll say if we ever sit down to a food conversation, but they won’t always go as planned. In that case, I will just use an opportunity to ask questions and gain experience.

So when food conversations fall short… Just keep swimming. Never stop learning…

Never stop learning and adapting.  The world will always be changing.  If you limit yourself to what you knew and what you were comfortable with earlier in your life, you will grow increasingly frustrated with your surroundings as you age.
–David Niven