Monday kickoff: An "agvocate" between foodie and farmer

Michele Payn-Knoper.

Maybe we'll look back at the Super Bowl "So God Made a Farmer" ad as a salient moment in the discussion about American agriculture.  People reacted very differently to the ad, often along the lines of farmer or foodie.  Lots of people simply didn't see eye to eye.

One person who has dedicated herself to opening lines of communications between the different camps in agriculture is Michele Payn-Knoper.  She's a dairy farmer and breeder in Indiana and a serious social media user.

In 2009, she started weekly chats about a given topic every Tuesday night on Twitter, using the hashtag #Agchat.  It's grown into a not-for-profit foundation to "empower farmers and ranchers to connect in communities using social media platforms."  If you want your tweets to be seen in the farming community, you tag them #Agchat.

And this week, Payn-Knoper is releasing a book called No More Food Fights!, which she says is "a call for decorum instead of mayhem in the conversation around food and farm."  Even the cover practices what it preaches.  Instead of a front and back cover, there are two sides – the food side and the farm side.

I e-mailed Payn-Knoper a few questions for her to answer, and she was very kind to oblige.  Here's our e-interview to stir up some thoughts on a Monday morning.

The Dirt: Tell me the story of why you started #Agchat?

Michele Payn-Knoper: I started #AgChat  in April 2009 because I believed agriculture really needed to do a better job of working together, which starts through communications. I had been a part of #Journchat and saw Twitter as a tool to orchestrate an ongoing conversation for people with an interest in farm, food, fuel or fiber. At the same time, I started #FoodChat to foster the conversation between ag and food "tweeps" because of the obvious disconnect. It was fascinating to watch people in agriculture coalesce around an idea. A year later, the movement was strong enough that a group of us founded the AgChat Foundation to empower more agvocates. The Foundation now officially runs the chat, which is moderated around a community selected topic on Tuesdays from 8-10 p.m. ET.  Learn more at http://agchat.org. 

TD: What is an “agvocate” to you?

M P-K: An agvocate is a person who works to engage in conversations about agriculture online. Mike Haley, a farmer in Ohio, coined the term. It's a short way of saying agricultural advocate. Advocacy, in my opinion, is about reaching out to a variety of influencer groups to help them understand agriculture. As I outline in "No More Food Fights!", each person needs to choose who they can be more effective with. Some will have success with teachers, others with legislators, yet others with their next door neighbors. The best advocacy happens when people connect through their shared passions and values.

TD: Is Agchat restricted to the Tuesday night chats?  I see tweets with the hashtag #agchat all the time.  Do tweeters see it a way to reach a broad ag audience on any issue now?

M P-K: I look at #AgChat (and the sister chat #FoodChat) as a town hall for people with ag interests to share information and connect with each other. It is successful because of the community and the volunteers who now run it through the AgChat Foundation. "While the formal #Agchat conversation happens Tuesday nights from 8-10pm ET, farmers, ranchers and those connected to agriculture use the hashtag to share and engage in conversations outside of the chat. The chat is a program of the AgChat Foundation to encourage social media engagement of farmers." said Emily Zweber, Executive Director of the AgChat Foundation. "The AgChat Foundation's mission is to train farmers and ranchers in the tools of social media; the chat is just one of our many programs."

TD: Most city people probably wouldn’t think of farmers as tweeters and savvy online users.  How do you think social media is changing rural communities?

M P-K: Media has certainly been intrigued by the thought of farmers and ranchers using technology. I'm not sure that social media has changed rural communities, but it has expanded those communities. It's about thinking globally, but acting locally. Local, to me, is not restricted to my very rural zip code. Local is now the community I've built through Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, etc. The beauty of social media, beyond the chance to tell agriculture's story, is that it allows people to connect, share best practices, get ideas from others and socialize.  All of those offer traditional rural communities an advantage.

TD: How do you navigate the increasingly political territory of farm issues, from commodities in the farm bill to animal welfare to going local to child labor issues?  Is Agchat a political place?  How do you express your own political views while also encouraging others on social media who may have different views?

M P-K: No, AgChat has never had a political bend to it; the goal is to bring people together in conversation.  Frankly, the level of political insults  seen across social media in the last election was disturbing – I don't consider social media to be a place for me to express my own political views. In today's times of a polarized food system, I think it's increasingly important to reach out in conversation. That's why I wrote "No More Food Fights! Growing a Productive Farm and Food Conversation", which will be released on Valentine's Day (http://www.causematters.com/farmfoodbook/). I believe agriculture has to do a better job of reaching across the plate and connecting as humans rather than only pushing our positions.

TD: What did you think of Sec. Vilsack’s “rural America is less and less relevant” comment?

M P-K: Rural America will be less relevant if we don't figure out how to connect with the 98.5% of the people not on a farm or ranch. I share 6 1/2 steps in "No More Food Fights!" to help people on the agricultural side of the plate consider who they can best connect with. Rural America is in interwoven into fabric of who we are in this country, but that will remain unknown if we don't help the non-farm public see our role so they can understand what we do. I'd encourage any of your readers to consider whose voice represents rural America. Cause Matters Corp. research on anti-agriculture activists using social media shows more than a hundred-fold increase in their presence. If you care about agriculture and rural America, then now is the time to speak up!

 

 

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One Comment

  1. I, and several other local farmers, will be meeting with chefs this morning in Lake Placid. I can't change the world, but, I may be able to change my neighbourhood. I commend Michele Payn-Knoper's efforts. Because I sell much of my product (lamb) direct to the consumer at farmers markets, I have an opportunity to tell agricultures story to a variety of people. I try to be accurate and knowlegable and not to disparage any farming method, size, or practices as this hurts all of farming. We need to our story ourselves or someone else will tell it for ous and we may not like what they say.