For agriculturalists, it can be hard not to become defensive when faced with scrutiny from misinformed consumers, especially when so many farmers and ranchers view their work not as a job, but as an identity. Here, a Montana rancher, along with the help of his trusty horse and cow dogs, works to quietly ease cattle into the corral on a crisp fall morning. 

Being an agriculturalist, at times, may feel like a thankless job. If Mother Nature isn’t battling against you, then the markets most likely are. With the dawn of social media sites effortlessly transmitting information and connecting people all around the world, it now sometimes feels like there is another battlefront agriculturalists must face – the misinformed consumer.

It is now estimated that the average American is four generations removed from the farm. That massive distance has left a void between producers and consumers, which is often filled with half-truths or flat-out lies. Knowing how to approach this misinformation is challenging, especially when talking about an industry that is so much more then a job to most people.

“It’s so hard not to become defensive. We are different than so many other industries and vocations out there because this is our identity,” explained Chelcie Cargill of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF).

Cargill has a passion for ag advocacy and through her work with the MFBF, she has worked to develop the Advocate, Communicate, Engage program (ACE). As the coordinator of the program, Cargill aims to help participants gain introspection of their own leadership potential and develop their talents to positively promote agriculture.

Through Cargill’s work and life experiences, she has had the opportunity to hone in on communication strategies. She points out that when it comes to ag advocacy, listening can go much further than just talking.

Truly listening to understand is harder than it may seem, but being an effective listener is the first step to gaining trust, which has better potential of leading to a constructive dialog. If faced with hard questions or negative feedback, Cargill recommends taking a step back and trying not to become defensive. Instead, allow the other party to voice their concerns. If they feel heard, they will be more apt to listen to what others have to say. 

“When we feel a call to action, I think sometimes we get way too excited about sharing our points and making our voices heard rather than actually engaging in a dialog and letting folks communicate what their concerns and their questions are,” Cargill said.

According to Cargill, when the opportunity for civil dialog does present itself, it’s important to communicate effectively. Try to avoid sounding condescending or accusatory when addressing concerns. While establishing credibility is important, remain mindful of the fact that average consumers cannot readily relate to an agrarian lifestyle. Be authentic, but not demanding. Center the conversation around teamwork and collaboration by trying to find a possible solution through your discussions.

Having a clear understanding of your audience is another factor to advocacy. She says it’s important to remember there are people on both sides of the issue that are just as passionate about their beliefs. People that are steadfast in their opinions often don’t want to entertain the idea of a discussion. Target those that are on the fence or have questions but have not yet formed hard opinions.

“They call that the moveable middle, those are the people you can make the most progress with,” Cargill said.

Further, Cargill points out that arguably the most important key to effective advocacy is agreeing to disagree. By finding personal closure in a conversation, it becomes easier to realize it is still possible to have civil, professional discussions with individuals of a differing opinion.

“You’ve got to be okay with the fact that not everyone is going to respect what we do or come on board with every aspect of production agriculture, and they don’t have to,” she stated.

It’s not easy living a life in production agriculture, nor is it easy to advocate for the industry. Cargill encourages personal reflection and points out that strong, open-minded communication skills are crucial to effectively delivering a message.