While I have written about our oldest son, Aaron, who surprisingly came home to farm, his brother has an equally compelling career path. With a degree in chemical engineering, Jack began work as a consultant.
Fast-forward five years. Now married and advancing in the consulting world, Jack was an ideal candidate for MBA school. He applied to Stanford and UC Berkeley. For these prestigious schools, entry is 98% of getting the degree.
Jack had solid credentials—good grades, test scores and a career record—but for such schools, "outstanding" isn’t good enough. During the crucial interviews, he unintentionally played the Farm Card. When asked how he would use his MBA training, he proposed to identify how to preserve the grain farmer portion of the value chain to keep the concept of independent farms viable.
Fascinated Interviewers. Jack was told his unique background and goal vaulted him over the entry barrier. Fair or not, being the only-farmer-in-the-room (OFITR) made him a rare species that fit the school’s educational diversity goals.
There is an aspect of exploitation by accident of birth in these examples, as opposed to allowing pure merit to compete. But as the number of farmers dwindle, such situations are more probable. Our response should be carefully considered.
One common reaction is almost evangelical: being the OFITR requires you to "tell the farmer’s story," converting unsympathetic heathens to farm-subsidy believers. That tactic has worn thin.
What special interest does not have a propaganda campaign going non-stop through every channel of media? Moreover, I am convinced that this "storytelling" strategy has been hijacked by marketers targeting us, not the public.
Instead, being straightforward earns respect, which reflects on ag. The resulting impressions will likely be more enduring because they are personal connections. I have encountered such moments on vacations, waiting rooms and visitation lines. Regardless of circumstances, these opportunities warrant forethought to benefit not just our profession but the lives we touch in those exchanges.
What I have learned is the belief in the idea of farms being deeply embedded in the American psyche. When farmers struggle with drought, for instance, hearts are moved, even in this age of rampant cynicism. Rather than mine public empathy, I suggest farmers maximize what they can give others when they are the OFITR. Put succinctly, rather than sell agriculture—be agriculture. People around will leave with the first-person experience that convinces them (accurately or not), "I know about farms because I met this farmer."
I have found these actions resonate and reassure.
• Speak well of your profession and peers. People want to know this ancient, essential industry is in good hands. If you can’t think of any colleagues who have inspired you or advanced our vocation, perhaps you should get over yourself.
• Express your gratitude to be farming. Most can only dream of job satisfaction to match ours.
• Talk about your links to the past and hopes for the future. Surrounding us are fellow citizens whose dreams have been shattered. Use our credibility to assure others can rebuild confidence in our entire culture, starting literally at the ground.
• Listen to their story. We’ve flooded America with oblivious "agvocates" singing to the choir.
We woefully lack producers who respect what consumers think and want us to hear.
You may never know when an OFITR opportunity will happen. When it does, I hope you will remember not to just play the Farm Card—give it away. Being the OFITR means you might be the only farm connection those around you ever have. We owe them a link that assures and enlightens, a bond that allows them to share in the hopeful future to which we look forward. TP
John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For local station listings, log on to www.USFarmReport.com.
- Summer 2013