Strive to Really Understand

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.

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Think Before You Speak (or Type)

I received the following comment on my article “This Outbreak Must Be Stopped”.  “I agree there is an anti-technology movement. We are in agriculture and I believe the only way to overcome this is with knowledge, kindness, and example. However-The Grist article and supposedly restricted replies but the ones on the site were totally uncalled for. Until you have a perfectly normal 1 yr. old grandchild and 6 weeks after having the multitude of shots which are required/recommended and they begin having seizures and then are diagnosed with mitochondrial disease which are thought to be the results of the shots too soon after being hospitalized with RSV you might have second thoughts also. Is there no compassion left in this world. The internet has made people ruder and stupider in my opinion. Not everything is good for everybody. That is why we live in this country so we can have a choice. I am not saying do not vaccinate but saying be informed, spread them out, divide the doses. Maybe they do not all have to be given at one time. And if the unvaccinated shouldn’t be in schools then the parents can keep them home. But maybe the outbreak at Disneyland came from another country where their health policies are different than ours. Please be kind with your comments. Ben Franklin said it best “Better to not say anything and let them think you are an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Bashing people online for any cause or any reason is just not right and definitely not called for. Thank you”

I was shocked by the comment and posted the following comment in response.  “I don’t believe I bashed anyone in my article. I am sorry you took it that way. I do not support government imposed mandatory vaccinations. I do support local schools’ and other local organizations’ restrictions on non-vaccinated people participating in group activities. Again I am sorry you were offended and I wasn’t bashing anyone.”

After giving it a little more thought, I posted another comment.  “After I posted my other comment, I went back and read your comment again. As I said, I do not feel like I bashed anyone in my article but you sure bashed me in your comment. I don’t know what Grist article you are referring to, and I had nothing to do with it. I said we need to use personal, emotional stories to support agricultural technology use – you did that in support of the argument against mandatory vaccinations. I have a great deal of compassion for people all around the world, which is why I support access to technology everywhere in the world. I support choice. You said the internet has made people ruder and stupider. I don’t think my article was rude. In my article I simply talked about the anti-technology movement. By using the Franklin quote, you called me an idiot. I would call that pretty rude. Have you heard the phrase, pot calling the kettle black?”

The original commenter replied to my comment.  “To Hope and the readers, I feel I must apologize I did not come across clearly – it was a knee jerk on my part and inexcusable. I was wanting to tell you about the Grist article which I cannot locate at this moment. You gave very thoughtful and pertinent comments. In fact this was the first time I have commented to any article and I guess it will be my last. The rudeness I was commenting about was from the other article and the comments which followed such as punishments for not having vaccinations and they were stated in a very rude manner as are many comments I read on the internet. I was not referring to yours. I used the Ben Franklin statement again concerning the other comments. It seems many people commenting on this subject are not aware there are 2 sides to this issue. I wanted them to be aware and be kinder. I was using your comment section to make my point. It was not a direct comment on your column although I can see how it seemed like it was. And I did just what I said I did not like others to do. So I offer you my apology and to your readers.”

This person should not stop commenting, their opinion matters just as much as any other, but the lesson here is – think before you type.  Your comments can be hurtful to others and I don’t think most people want to be rude and hurtful.

Put Yourself In The Other Person’s Shoes

I received an email from someone who read my first blog post that I want to share with you.  “I am writing to let you know how much I appreciated your article “Support All Farmers”. It really struck me in a personal manner, as sometimes I feel like I’m one of the few who support all of agriculture. I’m a college student and it is astonishing how much people of different aspects of the agriculture industry attack each other. As a student, people in my area of study are starkly against different methods of production. When I graduate, I plan to return home to join our diversified farm and raise hogs in a non-confinement manner with deep bedding and no antibiotics, along with a medium scale confinement cattle feed yard. My pork purchaser sells its own line of value added pork, as well as pork to high end restaurants and businesses like Panera and Chipotle. The latter of the companies has drawn a lot of criticism recently, some rightly so, some not such deserved. Major pork producers, mainly those in the confinement industry have been very quick to criticize the way they source their pork. What they don’t realize is they in turn, are bashing me and the way I chose to operate. The thing is, Chipotle is finally supporting small producers who do something different. The pork industry, (IPPCA, NPB, etc.) have tended to ignore us. It’s nice to finally have some support, since my peers refuse to.  I don’t have a problem with my family and friends who have confinements, I just don’t know how to correctly convey my thoughts when it seems like the entire industry thinks what I’m doing is wrong. When I was in 4-H I went to Washington DC and visited the National Pork Board office out there. After an explanation of their efforts, I was appalled about the hatred of the ethanol industry as it was causing the corporate, non-grain farmer and North Carolina producers’ great hardship. I understood it, but it troubled me because a sector of Ag was attacking another segment of the industry. I feel there isn’t just one way to feed 9 billion, and I don’t understand why we must fight against each other. However I feel like the accusations are only going to worsen and the industry will split. Again, thank you for the great article! I really hope your message is spread and more people will think in an open manner.”

Here is my reply.  “I am glad you liked my article!  I really appreciate your email.  I completely support your farming operation.  I would guess the reason you feel like your classmates are against what you do is because they feel like conventional, modern, production practices are constantly under attack.  They are responding to those attacks by attacking you, which is wrong.  The fact that Chipotle is one of your customers probably doesn’t help their impression of you.  I am glad you have found a good market for your pork and I understand your interest in preserving smaller, non-vertically integrated pork production.  However, it is hard to defend Chipotle and their vile, ravenous, and completely misleading attacks on modern agriculture.  All farmers should support you but no farmers should support Chipotle.  (They have really tasty food but I don’t eat there because of their politics.)  Pork industry groups should also support you, you are part of their industry.  The ethanol debate was controversial mostly because of the government subsidies, blenders’ credits and import tariffs.  Most of the government support of ethanol is gone now with only the Renewable Fuel Standard mandate remaining.  Livestock and poultry producers resented having their tax dollars subsidize a product which was making their feed costs go up.  I would say the debate was more of an attack on government policy than on other producers, although it may not have always sounded that way.  The best advice I can give you is to always take time to understand what the other person’s beliefs are based on, they may be feeling attacked too and it may be causing them to act out.  Once you understand this, you will be better prepared to engage them in an effective conversation and possibly convince them to support you.  I think there is an important discussion which needs to happen within agriculture.  I would love to have the opportunity to lead this discussion in front of agricultural groups.”

If I Were Made Ruler

If I were somehow magically made ruler of the world and I could make anything happen with a snap of my fingers, I would immediately make all markets open and free and give all people the right to own property and use it as they see fit.  In other words, I would make the world run on capitalism. Capitalism is people serving the needs, wants and desires of their fellow humanity.

Capitalism has become a dirty word to many people.  This may be because cronyism and corruption have been mistaken for capitalism.  In many countries, capitalism has never gotten the chance to prove its value without government interference and corruption.  Cronyism, where certain people enjoy preferential treatment from the government, is not capitalism.  Many countries are plagued by corruption.

I am a libertarian and I believe in free markets.  In order for free markets to work it is necessary for governments to provide law enforcement and national defense.  Markets can’t function without laws against theft and murder.  Outside of this basic law enforcement role, it is better for governments to stay out of markets.  Less government intervention leads to efficiency.

In high school, I gave a speech on trade for both FFA and FBLA.  Ever since then I have been a believer in free trade.  Free markets lead to innovation, efficiency and better lives for everyone.  The reason I would make all markets open and free if I were made ruler is because it would benefit everyone.

Everyone should produce what they have a comparative advantage in producing, products or services, and then trade those products and services with other people for the things they are most efficient in producing.

Since this blog focuses on agriculture, I will use an agricultural example.  In New Zealand when their government stopped subsidizing agriculture many things changed.  There was a short period of hard times for their farmers but they quickly adapted.  They realized their climate and resources gave New Zealand the comparative advantage in dairy production.  They quickly became a world leader in dairy products with a large amount of what they produce exported on the world market.

I have had a lot of farmers from New Zealand tell me they hope American farmers continue to get government subsidies because it makes us inefficient and we will never reach our true potential as long as we get subsidies.

If all people all around the world specialized in doing what they are best suited for, they would be more productive and all consumers would benefit from lower priced products and services.  Adaptation and change would be necessary.  People don’t like change and change can be hard when it is happening but changing to become more efficient and serve the free market always ends up to be better.  Just because your family has always done the same thing doesn’t necessarily mean you should keep doing it.

When I was in Southeast Asia I met some smallholder farmers who were making a much higher income than other farmers in their area because they were given the knowledge and tools to access the international market for their products.  This is where governments should play a role in research and producer education.  Every part of this world is well suited to produce something people want to buy, it is just a matter of finding what it is in any given area.

Private property ownership is the second part of what I would do as ruler of the world.  I have had the opportunity to visit with government officials from both China and Vietnam, two countries where private land ownership is not allowed.  They understand agriculture will never be as productive as it can be without private property rights.  In order to invest in your property and become more efficient you must own your property.  Private property ownership is one of the main things separating the developed and developing countries.

I want everyone to have better lives everywhere in the world.  Bono, of the band U2, feels the same way and has long promoted international charity and philanthropy.  In 2013, he said “Aid is just a stop-gap. Commerce—entrepreneurial capitalism—takes more people out of poverty than aid.”

This Outbreak Must Be Stopped

There has been a lot of news coverage about the outbreak of measles currently happening in the U.S.  The disease, which had previously been eradicated in this country, is now spreading because some people are choosing to not have their children vaccinated.  These people are reacting to a study done by a doctor in the U.K. connecting vaccinations with Autism in children.  The study has been proven to be fraudulent and the doctor has had his medical license revoked.  Subsequent studies have shown vaccinations to be safe and highly recommended.  Nonetheless, some people still choose not to have their children vaccinated.

You are probably wondering why I am writing about measles in a blog which focuses on agriculture issues?  In fact, the outbreak I believe must be stopped is not measles it is the anti-technology movement.  The truth is consumers love technology when it is in the form of their smart phone or tablet computer, but they are scared of technology when it comes to anything else – especially food.  We have seen great technological advances in the computer industry but we are not seeing the same kind of advances in other industries such as agriculture and medicine.  This is largely because the computer industry is not highly regulated by governments and other industries are, making it hard for them to advance new innovations.

Food is a topic everyone is interested in, we all eat.  This makes it a popular topic for the media to focus on in order to get ratings.  Unfortunately many of the stories you hear in the media spread messages which have been proven scientifically unsound.  Whether it is crop technologies like GMOs, veterinary technologies like growth hormones or medical technologies like vaccinations there are celebrities and writers who will be happy to tell you how dangerous they are and how they should be avoided.  Of course, all of these technologies have been studied by respected scientific organizations all around the world and found to be safe.

There are moments when I think this outbreak of anti-technology hysteria has turned into an epidemic and we have lost the battle.  When I read about consumers being polled and over 80% of them responding products which contain DNA should be labeled, I worry for our future.  By the way, everything we eat, except salt, contains both DNA and hormones.  But I feel better when I look at research on what global consumers really buy.  95% of global consumers make their food purchasing decisions based on taste, cost, and nutrition, another 4% are luxury/status buyers and only 1% are on the fringe and want to impose their ideas on other people.  Unfortunately, that 1% is very vocal and wants to use governments to impose their views on everyone.

As I have said before I support all farmers and their right to choose the production practices they use or don’t use on their farms.  I also support all consumers’ right to choose what products they buy.  These rights should not be infringed upon by government imposed bans on farming practices or products produced using those practices.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what the vocal fringe 1% of consumers work for everyday and they have been successful in several places including Europe.

I am interested in all farmers being productive and having better lives and I am interested in having enough food to feed over 9 billion people by 2050.  I think it is incredibly arrogant of the elitists, who don’t understand agriculture, to want farmers to go back to the way we did things in the early 1900s.  If that happened, there would not be enough food for our current population much less future growth, so we must find a way to fight the anti-technology movement.

Farmers are great at talking about science and economics but those messages don’t work with today’s consumers.  The activists use emotional, personal messages to persuade people to join their cause.  We must find similar messages to support the use of agricultural technology.  Do you have a positive message about how agricultural technology has made your life or consumers’ lives better?  Please join me in the fight to end this outbreak!

Agriculture Needs (The Right Kind Of) Leaders

For more than twenty years I have been involved in many, different agricultural organizations.  I have observed many good leaders but increasingly I see more of the wrong kind of people serving in leadership.  After some thought I would like to share with you the qualities I believe are needed in volunteer, elected leaders of agricultural organizations.

Preferably, we need leaders who are full-time farmers and ranchers and actively engaged in farming and ranching.  People who have non-farm income or are retired can’t really understand the challenges and realities of modern agriculture.  I would prefer our agricultural leaders be mid-career farmers and ranchers (between 35 and 55 years old).  Younger people tend to be too naive and older ones are thinking about retirement.

We need leaders who support all farmers and ranchers.  They can’t play favorites.  They must treat everyone who produces food and fiber equally.  They need to have a larger “world view” and know there is more to agriculture than what they do and there is always more to learn.  They need to genuinely want to learn new things.

We need leaders who know their “why”.  They have to know why they want to be in leadership. They have to know what they believe in and what their basic principles are.  They need to have the right “why”.  It can’t be about them individually.  It can’t be selfish.  It can’t be because they want to be “famous” and treated like they are important.  It can’t be because they want to benefit financially.  It has to be about helping the industry – not about them.

We need leaders who are of excellent character and integrity.  They have to be honest and trustworthy.  They should never be hypocritical, they should be ideologically pure.  They need to have common sense and be “real,” genuine people. They need to take their position seriously and be willing to do the work.

We need leaders who understand “influentials” are people who show up to meetings and are involved and they deserve to be treated with the same respect as people who have some fancy title.  They need to be willing to listen to all members viewpoints and encourage discussion and debate.

We need leaders who are intelligent and well informed. They need to be confident in their own intelligence and abilities.  If they aren’t they will let employees run over them and will not be effective representatives of the members who voted them into office.  If they are they will ask the right questions and makes their own decisions on issues.

We need leaders who understand the basic principles of the organization they are leading and will uphold them.  They need to be open to change when things aren’t working but not looking to change just for change’s sake.

We need leaders who are straight forward and not afraid to say what they believe even if it is politically incorrect.  They have to be willing to stand up for what is right.

We need leaders who present a professional image.  Agriculture is a business and we need to present ourselves as business people.  They need to be able to communicate effectively in front of an audience and in writing.

We need leaders who are positive about agriculture.  They need to be proud of what we do. They need to recognize farmers are small business owners and should be treated the same as other small businesses.  They need to be confident in farmers’ ability to take care of themselves.

We need leaders who will fight for farmers’ freedom and independence.  They have to be dedicated to protecting farmers’ right to choose what technology and innovation we use in our business.  They must support more open markets and freer trade.  They must be dedicated to protecting our private property rights.  They must make research and extension a priority.

My wish for 2015 is we find these kind of leaders.  If you are in leadership and you aren’t this kind of leader please step aside and let someone else fill your position.  If you are this kind of person please step up and fill a leadership position (fight for it if you have to).  Agriculture needs the right kind of leaders.

Agriculture’s Self-Esteem Problem

Farmers are professionals. Farmers are small business owners. If you start your own farm, you are an entrepreneur. I am proud to be a farmer! Why aren’t more farmers?

Over the last twenty years I have been involved with a number of agricultural organizations. For the first ten or twelve of those years I was considered a “young” farmer by some of those organizations. Now, I am not “young” anymore but I am still obviously younger than the majority of the people who attend the meetings of those organizations. Because of this, I have had several older people come up to me over the years and say we really need more young people to get into farming. The problem is I know several of the people who have said that to me have encouraged their children not to farm.

Their children were in 4-H and FFA and were the highest achieving students in their high schools. Many of them wanted to farm but their parents told them “No, you are too good to farm. You should go be a professional, a doctor, a lawyer or a politician.” If they didn’t want to farm then that is great but if they do want to farm they should not be told they are too good to farm. Farmers do the jobs of five different professionals every day. We are professionals and we are small business owners. Producing the food and fiber necessary to feed and clothe the growing world population is the most important job that exists.

My husband and I both get interviewed by agriculture journalists from time to time. We have had several journalists comment to us that we are always so positive, we never complain. We have had plenty of reasons to complain over the last few years, we have been in a multi-year severe drought cycle. I have never seen the value in complaining in the news media. I answer questions honestly. If I am asked about the drought, I tell what the conditions currently are in my area but there is usually something that is slightly positive to add to the conversation. I never end an interview on a downer.

“Don’t tell people your problems. Half of them don’t care and the other half are glad you have them.” My husband can’t remember who he originally heard say that but he has been saying it as long as I can remember. We both grew up on farms and we knew what we were getting into when we decided to be farmers. We knew there would be ups and downs. We are proud of what we do for a living. We are both educated and have skills that would enable us to succeed in other professions. We chose production agriculture as our profession.

It bothers me a great deal to hear other farmers discourage young people from choosing production agriculture as a profession and it bothers me to hear other farmers be negative and complain when they are interviewed in the media. How can we expect the general public to have a positive view of agriculture if those of us that are involved in agriculture are always negative?