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Our Anonymity is Killing Us! October 2, 2013

Editor’s Note: This presentation was originally given to our Arizona Farm Bureau farmer and rancher delegates during Arizona Farm Bureau’s 2011 Annual Meeting

We — Agriculture — have become so efficient that each of us in the food and fiber production business now feed and clothe about 155 other folks. But we’ve struggled telling our story. As we move into the fall when everyone celebrates the harvest and when we should really be telling our stories, we run Mr. Hickman’s Presentation once again.

 

By Glenn Hickman, Hickman’s Family Farms

Julie Murphree and I have been having a yearlong discussion about the challenges that face Agriculture, and so many of those challenges arise I think because common folks — our neighbors, customers, and regulators and so on — just don’t know who we are.

Yet we are out here supplying the basic building blocks of modern society.

A friend of Agriculture, Mike Rowe, likes to say that everything we value in our culture comes from either Agriculture or mining.  But think of that — most everyone enjoys a good steak, and cheap electricity, but no one wants to live next to a feedlot or an open pit coal mine.

 

Agriculture in the United States is far from a celebrated endeavor. In fact, we probably spend as much of our energy trying to defend our industry, our practices, our procedures, or our products as we do trying to develop new techniques to improve production, efficiency, and quality.

 

It’s common knowledge that food and fiber production in the U.S. is taken for granted.  The general population feels that as long as there exists a Safeway or a Wal-Mart down the street, we will all have plenty to eat and clothes to wear.

 

Today’s society doesn’t even take safe tap water for granted.  There are entire supermarket aisles occupied by various attractive packages of common but clean-tasting water.  However, our food supply is so safe now that even an ignorant, sloppy food preparation method usually doesn’t make us sick.

 

There are shelves full of the latest technology of outdoor wear, but a plain old cotton sweatshirt and woolen coat will always keep us warm.

 

We all tire of watching television and radio commercials hawking products and services of dubious real benefit.  Our airwaves are filled by politicians seeking office whose only real message seems to be “the other guys will be worse”.

 

Agriculturists tend to be quiet, hardworking, taxpaying folks who don’t need a lot of public acclamation for their efforts.

 

We may prefer to toil in the fields, and let the distributor, manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer market our products.  And for the privilege of doing so, extract a fee greater than we earned for actually making it.

 

We grudgingly send in our check off dollars to organizations that attempt to fight for exposure and market share on very limited budgets.  Last year, the beef industry — an extremely well-funded commodity promotion board spent about $40 million promoting beef.

 

Con-Agra Foods, a good-size branded foods company, spent $400 million all by themselves!!!

 

We all spend a few bucks belonging to AG groups, like the local/state and national farm bureaus.  We may send a few more dollars to our specific trade associations.  Heck, if it’s not too expensive, we might even belong to the local chamber of commerce. I might have missed a couple, but for most of us, that’s the extent of our advocacy.

 

Tailgate creativity need not be the exclusive domain of Hickman's Family Farms. And, yes, a person eating their daily requirement of nutritious protein beyond a bowl of cereal could probably beat up on Tony the Tiger!

Sure, we get together at Sideburns, or Francisco Grande, or the Stadium Club, or TJ’s or the Sheep Camp, and we take turns preaching to each other’s choir.  We read our industry newsletter and trade publications and nod vigorously in agreement.  We come to a meeting and we tell our hired industry reps like Bas, or Phil to get out there and give our protagonists a kick in the seat of their pants.

 

We return home at the end of a long day and tell our significant others how unfair it all is, and how folks just don’t understand the good work and effort we put in providing the most basic needs of society.  We continue to make investments based on today’s rules and regulations, just to have them change with the tap of a bureaucrat’s keyboard.

 

It’s human nature to heap blame or scorn on an anonymous nuisance. Agriculture is not 24/7 photogenic. The influence of our operations cannot always be strictly contained within our fence lines. Yet, if we are at least casually acquainted with our neighbors, we usually don’t call the police because we can hear the neighbor’s boombox, or if they don’t mow right up to the property line. We may even forgive them if they don’t retrieve their dumpsters before the trash truck has rounded the corner.

 

If we are lucky enough to know a politician or two, they sympathize with our plight, but then usually tell us how many folks on the other side simply view agriculture as a pest.

 

Proposition 204 was a wake-up call for our family enterprise. I am a 4th generation native of the state. Our business has been in continuous operation for 66 years. We have a lot of folks working with us, pay a lot of taxes, and participate in the community. However, the attitude of the electorate on November 7, 2006 demonstrated how out of touch animal agriculture was with the general public. We can use professionals to help us fend off the parasitic regulators, but it is up to each of us to develop a better connection to our community.

 

We re-examined our own efforts and found some simple actions to help break the cloak of anonymity. Our delivery trucks have always been tattooed in some manner. However, our light fleet vehicles were kind of generic. We now probably get as many comments on the small vehicles as we do the semi trucks. More importantly, we all get approached, recognized or greeted, whether at the soccer field or the Bashas’ parking lot. From family members to mechanics, we view each of these intercepts as a way to establish a positive connection with the public.

 

At a recent agriculture confab, the parking lot could have been mistaken for a meeting of the Central Arizona Tile Setters, (CATS). There were a few “Arizona Grown” license plates, a few “got milk” bumper stickers and certainly some mud on the running boards — but no one had their family farm name conspicuously displayed.

 

Arizona Farm Bureau's 2nd Vice President and Rancher has taken up the clarion call to tell her family's ranching story. Will You tell your story?

After some head scratching, I came up with a theory: A lot of us in this industry seem reluctant to show how we earn our livelihoods. We wish we could sit in an air-conditioned office and wear a coat and tie to work. We envy respectable careers like banking and hedge fund management.

 

It must be the reason that we send Joe Sigg into legislative battle, but won’t accompany him to a legislator’s office. It must be the reason we don’t have each of our employees wearing our hats instead of the fertilizer company’s. It must be the reason we resist putting our family or enterprise name on the sides of our pick-ups or livestock trailers. It must be the reason we hide behind university staff instead of confronting our opponents head on.

 

So back to the original discussion’s Julie and I were having.  What can we do to get EVERY farmer out there involved in some type of self advocacy?  Contrary to popular belief, I’m the last one to volunteer for a speaker’s job, so I sure can’t recommend that to everyone.  So Robert Shuler came to the rescue.  He suggested that a tailgate wrap (or a series of them), could be created.  Farm Bureau could come up with the creative concept and we could have the individual farms’ names slugged in to identify them.

 

We could even come up with some wraps that our vendors and suppliers could put on their pick-ups.  I think it would be affordable, and we would be surprised by just how many AG vehicles would be out in the community every day, reminding folks that farming is important.

 

I think it’s the least we can do.  We don’t need to tattoo the garaged BMW, or the lawnmower, but we should consider the positive exposure that each vehicle receives on the road each day.

 

We will come up with an excuse (an answer meant to deflect blame or accountability) as to why we don’t want to identify ourselves:

 

1. We don’t want to get sued for something that might not be our fault.

2 .       We can’t control the way our employees drive or behave.

3.        We will have to pay for every broken windshield in the county.

4 .       What if I or one of my employees flips someone off or honks their horn?

5.        I will have to keep my vehicles clean, repaired and presentable.

6 .       Part of our employment benefit package is the use of the company truck and the employee might not want to go to the restaurant or shopping with a big decal on the side.

 

I can go on and on, but I think you get the message.  Hickman’s egg ranch is not the only one buying fuel by the truckload. If we checked the Farm Bureau insurance company’s records, we would probably be floored by just how many vehicles we do all have out there on the road.  And no — I don’t think that Hickmans have an advantage just because we sell a consumer product.  I think it’s actually a chicken and egg question,”Did we promote the business, and get the customers?  Or did we get customers and then promote the business?”

 

No one can make an argument that we should be anonymous AND supported.  If you behave or operate in such a fashion that you enrage your neighbors, consider changing.

 

 

In any group, there are always a clever few that skulk to the back of the pack while others forge ahead, take the initial risk and suffer an occasional set back– and there always will be.

 

So please, for the sake of agriculture, get off the farm, out of the coffeeshop or 19th hole, and get out on the stump!!!!

 

If you want to be anonymous and if you value your privacy more than your livelihood, you may soon have to make the choice.

 

 

Thanks for letting me ramble on.  I know by the fact that you are here today, taking time out from your business that you already qualify as our industry’s overachievers.  However, a lot of us came here today with empty seats in the pickup.  I’d like to challenge you all to get your fellow farmer as involved in our advocating efforts as you are.  I believe our future depends on it.

 

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Comments»

1. Rita - December 2, 2011

Well stated and very true!!

2. Celebrating our Award-Winning Arizona Farmers: Wilbur Lunt, Distinguished Service to Agriculture | Julie's Fresh Air - December 16, 2011

[...] Our Anonymity is Killing Us! (juliesfreshair.com) [...]

3. Pennee - October 2, 2013

Good article!