Increasing Agriculture Literacy Easy When Playing Offense

Published on: 20:02PM May 27, 2010

By Jane Hillstrom, Hillstrom Communications


A friend asked me what I knew about "milk and meat from factory farms." Before I answered, I asked questions. What is his definition of a factory farm? What has he heard or read about how food is produced? Has he toured a farm?


When I pose a similar question about farms to dairy producers during role-playing exercises in communications workshops, I often hear a lengthy speech defending on-farm practices. Sometimes it’s dangerous to have too much knowledge. Those of us with advanced agriculture literacy often talk too much. We feel compelled to educate the consumer on everything from artificial insemination through processing. This confuses the questioner with more than they really wanted or needed to know. As my children say, "TMI: Too Much Information."


After you truly understand their question, then it’s time to answer. But, how much do they need to know? It’s less than you think. Imagine all dairy producers as having a Ph.D. in dairy farming. You only need to bring the public up to a second to fourth grade level.


The next time someone asks you a question, try this approach. I call it Shoot the Three in reference to basketball.


If you are asked about something as broad as "milk and meat from factory farms," ask three questions to increase your understanding of their concerns, as I did with my friend. Then, rephrase the question, which in basketball is like stealing the ball: "I think what you are asking me is, ‘Can I trust family farmers to produce wholesome milk and meat?’ Is that right?" Chances are the questioner will respond, "yes." Now, you’re standing on your own three-point line with no defenders.


Use a calm assertiveness in setting up your shot by starting with a strong message. For example, "I spend everyday making sure my animals are comfortable and healthy to produce wholesome milk. Cow comfort is job one on our dairy."


Next, share three examples of how you assure comfort and health, such as "our cows rest on soft, sand bedding; on warm days, they have fans and misters blowing on them; and our veterinarian visits the farm every two weeks to do health checks." Stop there. You’ve made the shot. Three examples brings them up to a second grade ag literacy. The nitty, gritty details aren’t necessary.


Don’t wait for the next question. Inspire it! Ask an intriguing question such as, "Are you familiar with what cows eat? If we all ate as well as my cows, we’d be a healthier society." It’s like stealing the ball on the inbound pass and going up for a layup.


This communication technique allows you to play offense instead of defense in a conversation. Playing offense always scores more points.


To be trusted, food producers must be transparent. Allow the questioner to pose their question and find out why they are asking it. By immediately defending your position, you send the signal that you’ve stopped listening. Once that happens, you automatically set the tone for the conversation that indicates, "I’m right and you are wrong".


Instead of defensive criticism and immediate judgment of the person asking the question, it’s more constructive to begin with the discovery of understanding. Ask three questions, rephrase the question, and give three examples – shoot the three. Only after understanding their real concerns can we hope to shift the public’s core thinking.


Jane Hillstrom owns Hillstrom Communications, a public relations firm, and is co-founder of Dairyland Digital, the owner of, an educational and networking website for people who work in agriculture. She can be reached at 920.839.5032 or [email protected].