I have been honored to participate in several agricultural leadership programs, including two fellowships allowing me to travel to other countries and learn about their agriculture industries. Recently, I was asked what advice I would give to someone who has been chosen for an agricultural leadership program.
First, always approach new things with an open mind. I have always tried to approach my learning opportunities without preconceived expectations. I am often asked “How did (some place I visited) compare to what you expected?” and I usually reply I didn’t have any predefined expectations before my visit.
Second, never judge anything until you really understand it. I have met several people who were traveling on similar learning programs to the ones I have participated in who were in constant judgment mode and I don’t think they learned much from their travels. You cannot learn about something while you are judging it, you must fully understand it before you judge whether it is good or bad. I never judged any of the things I saw on my travels until my visit was over.
Third, ask questions to make sure you fully understand what you are seeing and being told. We must strive to really understand. It is so easy to misunderstand things which are new to you. I was hosting a group of international farmers in Oklahoma and they asked someone we were visiting about transporting cattle by train. Both the person we were visiting and I said we don’t transport cattle on trains in the United States and haven’t for many years. My international visitors said “But we saw cattle cars on the train which crossed the road in front of our car the first day we were here.” I thought about it for a minute and what they had seen were rail cars which transport new automobiles. This was an innocent mistake, but it is a good example to show there are no stupid questions.
I believe some of the most important things to question are ones which are politically incorrect to question. We need more debate on issues, not less. We can’t really understand each other without debate.
One cause of miscommunication is we use words which don’t really have a clear definition. Sustainable should be a good word but it is a word I have grown to hate. Everybody seems to think it means something different. I took an international visitor to visit a lady who runs a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) enterprise. She told us her produce was organic and sustainable. She also told us she was losing money on her CSA each year. I asked her if she thought organic and sustainable meant the same thing. She said yes. My visitor told her if she was losing money each year her enterprise was not sustainable.
Another example of a phrase which doesn’t have any real definition is factory farm or industrial farm. On a visit to another country for an international agricultural conference an organic dairy farmer who was speaking said negative things about industrial farms. A farmer from another country got up during the question session and informed the speaker that in the country he is from the speaker’s dairy farm would be considered an industrial farm because of the number of cows he milks.
We must understand there is no universally good or bad agricultural practice and no perfect size for a farm. A practice you believe to be the best in your area could be completely wrong in another part of the country or world. Something you think would be a horrible practice in your area can be absolutely correct in another place. Usually if someone has been doing something for a long time there is a good reason for it and you need to ask the necessary questions so you can understand why they chose to do it that way. Why is the most important question. Make sure you know your why. You may need to answer other peoples’ questions.
Discussions about politics are even more problematic, for example conservative and liberal mean different things to different people and political terms used in this country can have the exact opposite meaning in other countries.
Agriculture and our world face so many challenges. I believe if we all strive to really understand things before we judge them we will be much closer to solving those challenges. We must strive to understand others and communicate more clearly so we can be better understood.