Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


2013 Banff Pork Seminar

'Speak up with pride' to connect with consumers

Crystal Mackay of Farm & Food Care

Who speaks for agriculture today? For Crystal Mackay, there is no one better to do that than farmers and others who work in this industry every day. It's not easy to connect with consumers, manage ever-higher expectations and support a clear, fair understanding of industry values and how things work. But that's not an excuse for agriculture to keep to itself.

As Executive Director of Farm & Food Care, Mackay has 'walked the talk.' She has helped to lead a staff team, member organizations and board of directors who have collectively shaped the organization to have a major focus on communicating with the public and providing credible information on food and farming.

"The good news is, the average Canadian has a really positive view of agriculture," says Mackay, who talked about the communications challenge for agriculture at the 2013 Banff Pork Seminar. "The challenge for us is 93 percent of Canadians say they know little or nothing about it. So there is definitely a big black hole out there for agriculture to fill with accurate information. If we don't speak up for ourselves, we are leaving it to others to shape how people think about our industry."

Tell your story

The key is for people in agriculture to tell their own story, she says. "Know your strengths. Talk about your farm or your area of expertise in the industry. Don't bog people down with too much technical information. They want to know the real life stories about your care and commitment and what you do every day."

The formation of Farm & Food Care is an example of people in agriculture making a concerted effort to strengthen the voice of their industry and be more active in engaging the public.

The organization was created in 2012 from the amalgamation of the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) and Agricultural Groups Concerned About Resources and the Environment (AGCare).

"It is the first coalition of its kind in Canada – bringing together livestock, crop and horticulture farmers and associated businesses," says Mackay.

Farm & Food Care provides information on food and farming and provides coordination and strategy on behalf of the entire industry in the province. There are three pillars to the Farm & Food Care business model:

  • Advocacy and intelligence – Risk communications and issue expertise
  • Industry Programs & Research – "Do the right thing"
  • Public Trust & Outreach – "Tell people about it"

The highest profile of these is the third pillar, aimed toward speaking openly about agriculture to build a stronger relationship with the public, says Mackay. While Farm & Food Care offers a collective industry voice to accomplish this, it's equally important for individuals involved in the industry to play a role as "ag ambassadors" – each contributing to the overall cause in their own way.

Tips for Ag ambassadors

What makes a good ag ambassador? Mackay offered these tips to Banff Pork Seminar participants:

Be positive. "Think customer service with a smile," says Mackay.

Know your audience. "Know who you are talking to and what their concerns are," she says.

Be prepared. "This means taking time to know what's happening and what you want to communicate," says Mackay. "This can mean everything from dealing with issues to being ready for questions, including being prepared to deal with media."

Keep it simple. Talk about what you know...but not too much at first , advises Mackay. "Use examples from your farm or your experience. Never guess."

Speak with confidence. If you're asked about something you're not comfortable you know the answer to or how to handle, there are ways to manage that, she says. "'I don't know' is always a valid answer. Refer them to someone else or take their name and get back to them when appropriate.

Use easy to understand words and explanations. Industry jargon is a common mistake, she says. Ag ambassadors should also avoid human comparisons and loaded words. "Provide comparisons your audience can relate to."

Show you care. Sincerity is critical to building trust, says Mackay. People need to see you believe what you are saying and that you respect and value the audience you are speaking to."

Know the line. Keeping positive often means finding the right balance between inviting discussion while avoiding debates and confrontations. "Remember, everyone is entitled to their opinion," says Mackay. "You may be the only person in agriculture that person ever has the chance to meet. Make that impression great."

The website virtualfarmtours.ca and the Real Dirt on Farming books are two examples of leading tools available that ag ambassadors can use and refer people to.

Links to these tools and others, such as an Ag Awareness toolkit, along with more tips and information from Farm & Food Care, is available on the Farm & Food Care website: http://www.farmfoodcare.org/pdfs/news/Ambassadorbrochure.pdf.

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