State of the Soil’s Agricultural Industry Address.
Farmers, ranchers, market gardeners, farmers’ market vendors, floriculturists, apiarists, chefs, food truck operators, agricultural suppliers, thought leaders, and everyone who supports local food and farms.
From time to time, as an industry, we must sit down to collectively reflect on our place in this world in which we have been called upon to serve the citizens of Earth. The task has been laid out before us.
We are responsible for feeding our neighbors we can call by name and those whom we will never meet. We have chosen and been called to serve those who have picked a different profession in this life. Together we tend fields of soil, plant seeds to flourish in water, create culinary art, prepare meals, care for our pollinators, bring floral joy to everyday and special events, supply the men and women who generate life from seeds and break bread with everyone with whom we share our lives. We feed ourselves, each other, and everyone who must fuel their bodies daily.
Agriculture is the oldest and noblest of callings and a life of hard, yet fulfilling work. We see seasonal changes before the everyday professional who is stuck indoors. We harvest life from the ground and growing systems under many spectrums of light. We keep watchful and ethical eyes on the animals that feed us and work the land along with us.
We are bound together by passion, stewardship, community, and the most exceptional food ever made.
Here is State of the Soil’s view of and wishes for 2018.
Unity across growing methods
We wish for soil farmers and Hydro farmers to unite. The National Organics Standards Board’s look at deciding whether or not Aquaponics and hydroponics could be eligible for organic labeling drove a wedge between the two camps.
If customers ultimately decide where their food dollar votes are spent should we not focus on our farm’s stand-alone achievements and our direct clients? If a farmer chooses to utilize their growing space and it doesn’t align with another farmer’s growing methods, philosophical, or ecological standards; is the first farmer wrong?
People will argue with science’s sources, variables, controls, mistrust studies, mistrust the government because of lobby cash injections, and hold so tight to their own beliefs that they will not let any other line of thinking even be possible. When big Ag commodity farmers and ranchers who run their operations to make money and utilize all state and federal privileges they automatically are lumped into the bad guy category.
Mind you, State of the Soil is here for small business, for small farms, and wants to see you succeed no matter how you choose to grow. As long as you are growing ethically, safely, and staying transparent with your clients, we support you. The issue we take is the negativity towards other farmers.
As an industry, we let a label un-unify a group of people who fundamentally all believe in the same thing: The desire to feed their client’s better tasting and safer food.
Remember, celebrate, and preserve our history while embracing the future
Let us not lose the history the Organics label began as by the movement of organic practitioners dotting timelines throughout the 1900’s. These men and women choose to take a stance for something. They decided to represent soil health, pesticide-free, unaltered food in times of change to manufactured sustenance. The pioneers of the organic food movement and those protecting that ethos have maintained a legacy of standards and practices in healthy food and earth for all generations to inherit.
As urban development erodes family farmland lost to generations leaving the farm, some of those legacies have been lost. In the generational skip between the greatest generation and generation X, society innately knows we lost something. As younger farmers rekindle the agricultural fires, they are doing it in ways they inherited from the past. They are doing it by means they are programmed with.
When the need to farm is combined with less usable land, a generation or two of people who are tasked with fixing a cluster of economic and social problems, and their ability to create and use technical solutions; there will be new methods of farming. These methods have been tested over decades, but are just now reaching their golden era of development. And the rate of change and growth is faster than any agricultural events in history.
When you look at the motivations and why this new crop of farmers choose nontraditional growing methods, you see we are all still deeply connected. Growing in arid land, in cities, under glass, in water, with sensors, and designed for resource and financial efficiencies is evolutionary agriculture born from a generation latchkey farmers who grew up in nonagricultural environments. They still hear the calling. And thankfully, some also are taking leadership roles to guide their fellow producers.
The soil is right. Hydro is right. If we all provide food to the best of our abilities and market needs, then the argument as to how another farmer operates becomes mute. Saving soil and water resources by growing the best possible crops in the most efficient systems and closer distribution points helps all agriculture. Learning, even at accelerated rates, takes time.
The hope is meeting in the middle while efficient and healthy production is maximized and lessons learned can be openly shared and adopted by choice because it is the right thing to do, not because it is legislated by industry outsiders. Open-minded meeting in the middle could solve many problems in and outside of agriculture.
Run your operation like a business with a media and public relations plan
As our farm businesses grow, we must remember that they are businesses. The passions and why’s of farming are so powerful that it is easy to forget they cannot sustain a business on their own. If your farm is reliant on people supporting you based on faith, good deeds, and exceptional products without a business edge the road may be rough indeed. In side by side comparisons, the farmer deploying strategies of operations, scale, media management, and end consumer research will dominate the introverted farmer unwilling to progress with a creative and nimble public relations-minded farm.
We must be willing to share our story, make the connections, dispel the myths, open eyes, and sell by visually compelling original content to the right buyers on any platform they are on. We cannot rely on other people’s virality to do the hard work for us. Content and authentic communication is the road to the coveted word of mouth referrals. In today’s overly distracted and time sensitive world you must be worth talking about. We live in a time where everyone is fighting for attention. The smartphone gives us all the media power and distribution platforms that all major news and production companies had as little as twenty years ago.
The ability to shoot and edit video and photos on one device in a matter of minutes, overlaying graphics, adding music, and pressing a button to message your targeted audience in real time is a powerful tool that is budget friendly if not free. Understand major corporations were paying millions of dollars a short time ago for these luxuries. Also know that if you are not actively on these platforms, someone else is and word of mouth, while highly valuable, cannot scale as fast as a well-done media plan.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and practice makes perfect. Training makes perfection effective. Continued education of social media is time well spent only if implemented. The excuse of not understanding, agreeing with social media, or being upset with algorithm changes is just holding you back as other companies have gotten over these cop-outs to cultivate what could have been your audience who should have got their information and entertainment from you and in turn your paid products and services.
The intent of these words is not to make a farmer a marketer if you don’t want to be one. But that should be your first hire if you are not going to do it. You chose this profession to farm, but the profession needs media and public relations to flourish.
If you are not telling or directing your own story, you might as well not even have one. And worse yet, somebody might say to it for you. Take control of your media. You are not required to be perfect, just be visible.
Collaborating with others in your community and industry
Collaborating with others in an abundance mindset is a community connector. Be a part of something bigger than yourself. Don’t just sell at a farmers market, help that venue thrive. Take a leadership role by offering help to new vendors; carry a few essentials to assist other vendors and the public. Things like a broom and dustpan for spills and damage, extra string to tie down loose canopies, some wet wipes for the mom wrangling one too many kids while shopping, spare change, and pens for a fellow vendor. Think back to when you first started and the help you wish you would have had. Be a leader. Help your market thrive and be welcoming. These are the places memories are made, and good habits in economy and food are established. Be the reason people on both sides of the selling table come back.
If you help your fellow vendors, and they help you our clients see it. If vendors create their followings on social media and email lists, other vendors benefit from the cross traffic. If all vendors cultivated their audience, the cross traffic multiplies infinitely.
When it comes to culinary excellence, chefs depend on you for the building blocks of their art. If a Chef uses your product, make sure you help promote that Chef and restaurant. You may find yourself helping media train less savvy business owners on cross-promotions, but the sharing of stories, audiences, and their experiences benefits everyone involved. Being present to the activities around you and becoming the resource for collaboration because you are an expert farmer, marketer, and open to possibility means you are seen in and outside of your direct industry as a leader.
Being in and among the activities in your area during events shows your connection to the community. If this happens to be an agricultural event you get the benefits of professional network building. If it is a civic or social event, you become our agricultural ambassador to your local population. In this role, you represent every one of us. When you speak to non-agricultural people, you speak for all farmers. Do not play the part of the scarcity-minded poor farmer. You can tell truths about hard character building work in severe conditions and economies but speak with opportunity and possibility. Speak with the need for support and the consequences of losing farms. Also, speak of the benefits of local food resources and the impact agriculture has.
Become an ambassador for Agriculture
When you speak in person or online, people do notice. The picture you paint of yourself reflects on everybody. When farmers are snarky, disrespectful, defensive, and single-minded, these cancers can spread rapidly in a community. The community can be online, in a small town, farmers market, or city neighborhood. Be mindful of your bad days, learn from them, but do not spread them to others.
Add in hospitality to your operation
Another interesting concept is looking outside of our industry for best practices. When we put the hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, travel, experience-based companies) we see all levels of service to take note of. If we apply a five-star rating scale to this sector, where would your operation place regarding customer service experience?
Welcome your clients as guests. The anticipation of needs and execution of servicing those needs can range from the plain to the extravagant. Your prices can also scale up and down. Is your farmers’ market booth a Motel 6, a Holiday Inn Express, or the Ritz Carlton? Is your CSA, from order to pick up, a McDonalds or dinner at The French Laundry?
Customer experience, ease of use, details in presentation, extending an atmosphere of positive control is stressful situation all matter. If you implemented on or two new hospitality details a quarter could you retain more clients or raise your prices? If your booth was set up in a clean, efficient way would your clients feel more comfortable? In that comfort would they have the sense of connecting with you, your farm, and your products versus being just another number to serve? Is it too outlandish to appoint a farm concierge? Is it too much trouble to send a handwritten thank you card? Is it unreasonable to wash your tablecloth weekly?
Visit a high end, middle priced, and budget hotel and restaurant’s Facebook page and read the reviews. What are people emotionally saying about these experiences? These emotions carry over anytime money is exchanged for goods and services. Why would we not implement some of the hospitality industries proven, and often expected, habits?
When exploring hospitality, could you look for ways to develop your product into a higher valued item? Many of us are doing recipe cards, deliveries, and open houses, how many of us are offering premium experiences, bespoke services, and tech implementation to streamline the communications and order? Who could host an event on their farm that wows your fans?
Get to deeply know and connect with your clients
Who could solve the pain points your ideal clients have around food. Do you know what they are? Are you talking to a twenty-five-year-old new mom the same way you are talking to a retired couple about nutrition? Are you laminating from a pulpit about permaculture to someone who just wants to buy some carrots and go home to watch Netflix? Can you reassure the headline reader client who is convinced that everything is grown from GMO seeds and uranium fertilizer with real facts about how all of this really works?
How many different clients buy from you? What are their reasons? Are they health-conscious buyers maintaining overall health, or are they trying to lose weight? Are their primary motivations to support local, or buy fresher produce? Are they buying for socially conscious reasons or are they obsessed with food? Do all of these reasons and more combine, and to what percentage? The purpose of asking these questions is to help guide your messages online, in the mail, in their inbox, or in person.
To understand why people buy what they buy, how often, from who, and their end-use will help you know the client’s Why. More important than your Why, the reason you do what you do in the growing manner in which you do it, understanding your client’s needs will connect you to them and vice versa. Be the solution they may not have even realized they needed. The effort to learn about your client with the same vigor of plant growing knowledge is a true measure of client care and hospitality.
By learning your client’s needs and preferences the opportunity to diversify income streams by addressing their needs will become apparent. Agri-tourism, workshops, tours, added value products, premium services, partnerships with restaurants and chefs, speaking engagements, recipe books, calendars and notecards with local farm photography, are all revenue streams that have been done with existing infrastructure or small investments. If you want to expand income, scaling slow and small through client validations via request is a great start.
Be a student for life
We have discussed learning your client’s needs a lot. What we must look into now is the growth of farm business education. As a fiscally conservative industry, the knee-jerk reaction is to discount knowledge as something worthy of an investment. Books are cheap; libraries are free, YouTube is an endless stream of information. And when digested successfully and implemented, should the bottom line of profitability not go up? If one is always a student, always learning, and executes what they learned the business should see the return on the learning investment in either time spent or dollars on education designed to streamline the learning process.
The free information is only useful if acted upon and put into practice with your farm and market. When information is free, is it taken as seriously as something invested in?
When you have an industry subsidized with state, federal, university, county extension, and manufacturer’s free training you teach people that education should be expected and little to no cost.
If we look to professions like doctors, lawyers, accountants, sales, and executives the education is expensive and expected if you want to keep advancing. There are no second thoughts in these professions to invest in themselves and their companies because they get returns. These are the same types of people who buy, run and build the giant agricultural conglomerates we all like to peg as our number one enemy, “the big, heartless factory farms.” These are owned and ran by business people who see produce, nuts, fruits, livestock, and eggs as widgets to be processed, marketed, and sold via efficient distribution channels.
The advent of online education has not been well received by our community. We are distrusting of marketers and salespeople because we have fallen behind in these areas as a whole. Do we overlook the value of self-paced online education because no physical mentor or teacher is standing in front of you that you are responsible for showing you did the homework or implemented the lessons?
We poke holes in others systems because they won’t work in our region, our market is different, we disagree with the growing methods. We gloss over learning how to learn, how to think critically about our situations and markets and how to apply the lessons. We want courses to show us step by step on how to do something while not having the faith it will work.
As new as agricultural online education is, know that it is not the farmer who is investing. It is professionals in other industries who are looking to start their farm as a second income or career. These are people who want to start off on the right foot. They also know that no one course will solve all of their problems, the experience will come in time and they are used to learning by various platforms because they have done it for so long.
You also have that generation that grew up on the internet which has already taken online classes remotely from traditional institutions. They have learned how to learn on the internet.
Traditional farmers are backed by experience, history, and a network of farmers. Non-traditional new farmers are backed with well-rounded opportunity, acceptance of technology as a media and business tool, and open to collaborative possibilities. Either way is an excellent stand-alone option and can work. If we could collectively combine practical experience with technology, creative thinking, and openness to evolving business strategies and distribution we could begin to remove the stigma of the poor struggling farmer.
We need to quit feeling sorry for ourselves, quit complaining to one another, and begin to find solutions together. Not one of us has all of the answers. We all need to vet our sources of information. We must connect with others in and outside of agriculture to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.
To conclude this address, we can stay the same, or we can adapt our historic way of life to today’s marketplace.
We need to celebrate all ethical farming in all methods along with the advancement and experimentation of efficient systems to safely feed a growing populous.
We need to preserve the practical knowledge of the agricultural pioneers and practitioners we still have. We need to preserve their history and legacy as the foundation to our work. We must also not turn a blind eye to the future and the technological advances that are within our grasp.
We must stand together as an undivided industry of growers and producers who treat our clients, our earth, and each other with respect. We know that we may not always see eye to eye, but keep pushing discussions to work through our questions to find the best collaborative answers.
We must look at food with all five senses, and as a sustainer of life and bridge to bring people together. We know we are doing more harm than good and work a step at a time to making things better.
We all must learn in our own way and let people make their own decisions about how they consume information. We all are wired differently. Let us be thankful we live in a time there is so much information and having the freedom to access it.
As we develop new and better ways to connect our clients with our farm’s outputs, let us treat the business as something sustainable financially as well as ecologically. And let our farms be sanctuaries to the past, to health, and to the values that called all of us to agriculture. We can achieve this without being overzealous and preachy. Stay hospitable and welcoming. You will attract your tribe, and other farms will draw theirs. We are all going to the same place, just in different ways.
We are hopeful at the crossroads we are at that education, open discussions, abundance thinking, and ethical practices will sustain small farms and ranches for many more centuries and that history will show we prevailed together. This is our Why at State of the Soil, and we hope you can be a part of the discussions.
Plant Seeds Daily,