Julie Kenney, Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture

Julie Kenney, Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, speaks to farmers and industry representatives at a recent Iowa Biodiesel Board meeting. (Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Tips on how to build stronger connections through ag advocacy

January 20, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

Being an agricultural advocate can take various forms. From being involved in Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) programs like the Communications Squad to showcasing your farm through the Iowa Food & Family Project or through social media platforms, there’s a place for every farmer to share their farm story. The best part about it? No two farms or farmers are identical, so no story will ever be replicated.

Does the idea of being an advocate for agriculture seem intimidating? It doesn’t have to be, says Julie Kenney, Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and a farmer in Story County.

“It’s more about sharing your passion for what you do by giving people a glimpse into your world with what’s happening on your farm, with your livestock or in your fields, with your farm family, and finding things that others can relate to,” Kenney says. 

Welcoming guests

COVID-19 has halted many in-person farm visits, but someday, restrictions will be lifted, and normal travel will resume. 

Kenney says farm tours are a great opportunity for farmers and visitors. And they can be tailored to the interests of the group. 

“Start by giving them a glimpse into you and your family and what makes you so passionate about your farm,” Kenney says.

She says learning what visitors are interested in and why they chose to visit your farm can spark great conversations. 

Kenney says she’s learned so much from previous experiences about ways she can improve upon the farm tours she hosts.

“I can tell you stories about groups we’ve hosted on our farm,” Kenney says. “If I immediately started talking at them, it wasn’t nearly as effective as when I stopped talking and figured out what they’re interested in.”

What’s worked the best?

“Let them see who you are, what you’re about and what’s important to you. Then, be quiet and let them talk.”

Online advocacy 

When former ISA director Tom Oswald made his way into an online forum to converse with other farmers, he didn’t go in with the intent of being recognized by his username ‘notillTom’ at large farmer events like Commodity Classic.

Oswald, a United Soybean Board (USB) executive committee member and farmer near Cleghorn, joined the AgTalk online forum to discuss precision ag with other farmers. 

He got his first GPS in 1996 and took to the forum to learn from farmers who had already worked out the kinks in their systems. 

“For those of us early on in the precision ag space it was incredibly powerful and beneficial,” Oswald says. 

The online forum has been a place for Oswald to pick up new ideas. In some instances, it reaffirms or challenges something he’s learned in a meeting or elsewhere. 

“The online community allows you to broaden your sources of information, but you still have to calibrate locally when it comes to agronomic practices,” Oswald says. 

As in the case of no-till, he says. what may work in Alabama or South Carolina might not work on Oswald’s farm in northwest Iowa. 

Correcting misinformation 

While online discussions with farmers and consumers may differ from conversations at the coffee shop or on his farm due to the nature of the delivery, there are similarities, Oswald says. 

Being thoughtful and sincere helps build connections and credibility, even if opinions differ. 

“As in any coffee shop, there are misunderstandings and misinformation that gets shared. Sometimes you need to step in and correct misinformation to increase awareness,” Oswald says. 

He’s found himself in this position on several occasions, even clearing up some misunderstandings regarding fiscal accountability related to the checkoff. 

Building connections 

Oswald is a go-to when it comes to no-till and conservation tillage practices in Iowa. He’s also looked at as an agricultural advocate. He’s shared glimpses of his farm life and family through the Iowa Food & Family Project blog. 

These efforts are important not only in building an ag community, but bridging gaps between consumers and farmers, Kenney says. 

“I think the Iowa Soybean Association does a great job connecting people and connecting with people,” Kenney says. “As an ag community, we’ve got to continue to be open and support programs that help farmers do this. I commend grower groups that have made communication a priority, especially farmers who have put themselves out there and aren’t afraid to share who they are and make really important connections.” 

Window of opportunity 

If there’s one thing the global pandemic has done to benefit agriculture, it has increased the awareness of where food comes from. In some cases, consumers saw empty coolers and freezers at their local grocery stores while they tried to stock up on meat and milk. 

It’s an opportunity, Kenney says, to talk about the work farmers do to provide the products that eventually wind up in stores. 

“From what I’ve seen since the pandemic started, people are even more acutely aware of where their food comes from or where it doesn’t come from,” Kenney says. “I think it’s an opportunity for anybody in the ag community – farmers and otherwise – to use this as even more of an opportunity to have conversations with people because their interest is piqued.” 

Tips and tricks

Oswald and Kenney share tips to make your connections more meaningful: 

1. Listen. “We have to be good listeners and open to different perspectives. We get in trouble when we try to force conversations, ideas or ideologies; nobody likes that,” Kenney says. 

2. Be consistent, credible and in context. “If you’re consistent and thoughtful in your responses, you’ll be respected for that. Respect others, even if their view is different,” Oswald says. 

3. Lurkers are listeners, too. “In an online forum, remember that you’re not only talking to one person, but you’re also talking to all the people watching,” Kenney says. 

This story was originally published in the January 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.