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Consumer connection: Banishing misinformation through shared values

Article cover photo
Alision Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis, speaks to the Iowa Soybean Association District Advisory Council Tuesday in Altoona. Van Eenennaam shared a message that turning away from GMOs and other proven technologies can have an effect on our environment. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Lauren Houska, ISA communications specialist


Controversy often precedes innovation. Take this quote for example:

“It is unknown what long-term health consequences may unfold. The studies are not adequate. Furthermore, this will likely not be available or cost-effective for small farmers. It will decrease product acceptance and consumption.”

Today, you might think the speaker is referring to biotechnology, pesticides or any number of modern agricultural technologies.

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California-Davis, revealed the quote is about the introduction of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance 95 years ago. The adage “history repeats itself” must have some currency, as farmers today face similar opposition to important tools and technologies.

Van Eenennaam, who specializes in animal genomics and biotechnology, engaged with Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) members and staff during ISA’s District Advisory Council (DAC) Day Jan. 23.

Diving into the history and controversy surrounding agriculture technology, she offered ways for farmers to better engage and inform consumers without drowning them in data.

“People often look back to ‘the good old days’ as being somehow better when it comes to producing food,” Van Eenennaam said. “But from an environmental perspective, there are a lot of benefits associated with better production practices.”

Soybean farmers have made tremendous strides in doing more with less over the last 30 years. According to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, they’ve increased energy efficiency by 10 percent and reduced soil loss and greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent and 10 percent respectively. They even use less land.

“You produced nearly 4.4 billion bushels on less than 83 million acres last year,” Van Eenennaam told the crowd. “To produce that crop using technology from the 1950s, you would need 120 million additional acres in production — or nearly the whole state of California.”

So how do farmers convey all of this to consumers and avoid history repeating itself?

Making it personal: tell your story
Much of what researchers believe about the public and effective science communication is wrong, Van Eenennaam stressed. While researchers let the evidence inform their opinion, consumers generally make decisions on intrinsic values such as trust, authenticity or social identity — not necessarily proven data.

That means the burden falls on farmers and agricultural organizations to exemplify those characteristics to the public when communicating about agriculture, Van Eenennaam explained. It is important for farmers to find shared values with the consumers they are trying to engage.

“Take the concept of sustainability,” Van Eenennaam said. “It means something different to everyone on a social, environmental and economic level, which creates conflict when setting sustainability goals.”

Farmers need to make money, consumers want affordable food and everyone wants to protect the environment. But there is a disconnect between agriculture and the general public on how to simultaneously achieve those goals, Van Eenennaam said.

Iowa is not exempt from that disconnect. Several ISA members in attendance have experienced it firsthand, including April Hemmes, ISA director and soybean farmer from Hampton.

“Consumers often picture an ‘ideal farm’ as they think about their food and faming,” said Hemmes. “But their romanticized view of agriculture and sustainability doesn’t line up with the reality of farming these days.”

Consumers tend not to view farming as a business, Hemmes said. Many don’t realize how much money it takes to put a crop in the ground. That’s where she likes to tell her personal story, make connections and find shared values.

 “I try to understand why a certain practice or technology bothers them rather than just diving into a counter argument,” she explained. “Then, I tell consumers that my farm is a business — one that provides for my family and me. If I am not economically sustainable, someone else will end up running my century farm. That person may not care as much as I do about protecting the air, soil and water, spending money locally or producing safe food.”

While Hemmes understands not every farmer feels comfortable engaging with consumers, she encourages them to take small steps in sharing their farm story.

“Practice is the only way to get better,” agreed Randy Miller, ISA director and soybean farmer from Lacona. “Relate issues back to yourself, be genuine and be honest. Tell your story the way it should be told.”

ISA Director of Public Affairs Michael Dolch echoed Van Eenennaam’s sentiments as he helped prepare DAC members and directors for the legislative reception following DAC Day activities. He stressed the importance of deepening existing relationships with returning state legislators and establishing relationships with the new faces.

“Share a story,” Dolch said. “Share how some of these issues have impacted you and your farm. They are consumers, too, and they want to talk about agriculture; they want to talk about what you do.”


Contact Lauren Houska, ISA communications specialist, at

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