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Sharable Stories about Agriculture

meat and animal agricultureTerry Gross's Fresh Air recently aired "Assessing Consumer Concerns About The Meat Industry" with, Tom Philpott, who covers food and the agricultural industry for Mother Jones. This particular episode hit upon almost every issues that US agriculture has had in the last 10 years:

Animal diseases that could be spread; avian flu; factory farming; immigration; lack of unionization in meat processing plants; worker safety; Upton Sinclair and the Jungle; food nutrition; food safety; labeling; organic farming; poultry eating beef parts and beef eating poultry waste (BSE reference); egg nutrition based on poultry feed; monoculture farming; Food Inc; antibiotic use; hormone use; animal feed supplements; food prices low (but they really should go up); USDA and Big Agriculture as bad; small farming; and local farming.

The only thing missing were mentions of Monsanto and GMO (I think)!

Yes, this is a good story because is has all the elements of a good story:

  • the antagonist (agriculture, Government),
  • the heroes (moms and reporters),
  • the bad (bring up The Jungle, food safety),
  • the tone set with words like "factory farm" and "big agriculture", and
  • imagery via pink slime and "cows eating cows".

Also, what makes this story great, is its ability to be shared. Not the technical sharing through social media (though that certainly helps). No, this audio story enables sharing through simple ideas, concepts, and common language: "The Jungle", "pink slime", and "your kids getting sick". These are all snippets of language that can be told while at work, on your subway commute, or at a restaurant. These enablers make agriculture memes simple and easy to spread.

Is there anything wrong with this? Not really. This is how most news get spread. Some facts are mixed with allusions to things that might go wrong, all told with simple language and good imagery, to build a story in the listener's mind.

However, there are things that are going wrong. Any fact based rebuttal by the agriculture industry is continuously dismissed. Also, even if facts are not dismissed, science based information is not as sexy or cool and mostly ignored by people.

Is Tom Philpott, of Mother Jones, reporting or expressing his distaste for animal agriculture and meat processing? Is it balanced or is it driven by a desire to kill agriculture and reduce the food choices Americans currently enjoy today? Review his recent posts on Mother Jones and judge for yourself.

What should farmers and ranchers do? Learning to tell a story is a start. It will be a hard journey and requires practice. And your farm and ranch story needs to be sharable, both through social media and through the memories within the story. Lastly, you need to be able to take a stand in the face of criticism. This is perhaps the hardest part. Because even when you have been honest, open, and forthright, people on the internet can be mean and harsh.


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