*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
LEGENDARY Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu gave the advice: "Know your enemy as you know yourself."
Generals from Napoleon Bonaparte to Colin Powell have studied Sun-Tzu's Art of War and applied its principles to win battles and topple empires.
Read the pages of Feedstuffs or any popular agricultural publication, and you will readily realize that agriculture is embroiled in a war of its own. The challenge is fighting this war on two fronts: (1) on the field of common sense, sound science and best practices and (2) on the field of public perception.
Unfortunately for us, it seems we neither know our enemy nor truly know ourselves.
The full context of Sun-Tzu's advice on understanding the strengths, weaknesses and motives of one's enemy is that if you know your enemy as well as you know yourself, you might not endanger yourself in as many as 100 battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, you'll win some and lose some. However, if you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you'll always be in danger.
Appling that concept to agriculture, consider the current challenges to farm policy, animal agriculture and our basic ability to do business in this industry. These challenges are many, complex and seemingly multiplying.
Perhaps our biggest challenge is that we spend far too much time in what pundits call the "echo chamber." Though typically a term used to chastise policy wonks for consuming only the media that reinforces their closely held beliefs (i.e., conservatives listening to Rush Limbaugh or liberals watching MSNBC), we have our own echo chamber in agriculture.
Consider how many different farm publications are out there. Most of us get dozens of papers and magazines ranging from Feedstuffs to our state farm association's newsletters. Likewise, we listen to farm radio, watch RFD-TV and visit farm-oriented web sites.
How often do we step out of the bubble and read or hear what others say or think about us?
During the recent debate over the Food Safety Modernization Act, I took a lot of time to read what the mainstream press had to say about farms and food safety. In so doing, I made previously avoided sources like The New York Times and The Huffington Post part of my daily news diet.
By intentionally exposing myself to writers and commentators I knew I would likely disagree with or be frustrated by, I found myself building a broader understanding of how consumers view us on the farm and what we do for a living.
Consider this: The majority of consumers still cherish farmers, but picture those farmers as the iconic couple from Grant Wood's "American Gothic." That image, though indelibly imprinted in the consumer's mind, is not the most accurate portrayal of our nation's professional food producers.
While we may all agree that consumers have a poor understanding of who we are and what we do, couldn't those consumers say the same thing about us? After all, don't we have our own distorted views of the consuming public as an ignorant mass of malcontents incapable of understanding basic aspects of food production?
I suggest that rather than redoubling our efforts to "educate" the public about food and farming, we do what the Obama Administration failed to do with the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Campaign," and that is to reconnect with our neighbors and customers. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned this brilliant concept into what I call the National Organic Outreach Initiative, the basic idea of Know Your Farmer is exactly what we need in American agriculture today.