A Sustainability Story - Farm Version
Every farm has a story
My family started farming in 1928. Now, the fourth generation is leading the organization, and the fifth generation is right around the corner. We started with 10 acres of potatoes on a plot of land in North Dakota. Today, we grow around 30,000 acres throughout the United States.
Growth and longevity of a farm, while maintaining responsibility to the land, employees and communities is not easy. Has my family always been perfect - absolutely not. There seems to be a gap in agriculture on this topic, and farmers seem to view it as a challenge to tell their story. It’s viewed as a task that seems to be too complex, too transactional, too personal, too proprietary, too this and too that. But telling that story - the story of sustainability is criticial.
Why should agriculture talk about sustainability?
When social media first became a thing, we had a Facebook page for our farm. My dad would say, “What if people know what we’re doing?” and I’d respond with, “They’re driving by the field and making up their own stories about what we do anyway – so why not tell them the truth? What do we have to hide?” And the answer - nothing really. We're doing the best we can.
My dad was concerned for the family, business, and our reputation. Social media at that time was an unknown daunting place. Like every good opportunity, there are associated risks. The risk of not telling our story from our point of view, outweighed the risk of telling our own story.
Control the narrative
Another pivotable point, when we realized there was a need for a real farm voice, was when big brands started to paint the picture that growth and advancement in the agriculture industry is a bad thing. Do we really want to go back to the start?
Many would have you believe that big = bad. That technology = bad. That growth = bad. This of course is absurd. Are all farmers perfect? No. However, I have yet to meet a farmer that doesn’t care about the land, about animals, or about people. So, to have someone say something contrary makes no sense. Farmers need to tell the story of progress, they need to be proud of it, and they need to be their own voice.
Customers are requiring it
The demands that customers make, are real. And they demand specific things on how their products that they buy and sell to consumers are grown, produced and shipped. All farmers have to comply with this - and at the end, it makes for a more sustainable supply chain.
Farmers can provide all the data in the world regarding water usage, Carbon emissions, food waste, packaging technology, and other innovations that this industry participates in, to make the Earth a better place. Those are very important – however, they are the minimum. What else you do – and more importantly – why do you do it? Is it part of your DNA? A part of your culture? Or are you just checking these things off a list?
Consumers are demanding it
Forbes did a study on sustainability that stated, “When it comes to analyzing decision making by category, the food and beverage sector had the highest exposure to the purpose driven consumer (44% vs. 35% for apparel).”
In 1929 my great grandfather, Hallie, didn’t even think for one second about the purpose of those 10 acres that he first planted. He didn’t think about his sustainability program. He didn’t do it for a bigger, more grand purpose. He did it because the opportunity was available, he knew he could support his family, and he knew this would be something he could cultivate into a legacy.
Along came my grandfather, and then my dad, and now me and my brothers. As each generation passed, it became clear that potatoes were important, but the impact we were making on our communities and the families that were working with us was even greater. It became clear that the risks we were taking are changing the way potatoes are grown, harvested, and distributed. It became clear we were doing more than just being potato farmers.
Everyone has a different purpose – which is amazing, and necessary. Sometimes the real purpose isn’t obvious. Many farmers say they are “feeding the world” – and yes, that may be true. However, is that different from farmer A to farmer B? It may or may not be. The purpose for existing is different for everyone – and that purpose needs to be told.
Is your purpose to create a legacy for your family and community?
Is your purpose to develop people to become financially stable and support their families?
Is your purpose to provide the freshest, most local food in your geography?
Is your purpose to eliminate food waste in your category/part of the supply chain?
Keys to telling your sustainability story
There really is no right or wrong way to tell your sustainability story. It’s your story – that must match who you are, the way you farm and the culture of your organization. However, there are a few things to think about when sharing – as you can’t be everything to everyone.
Be Empathetic – The average American is now at least three generations removed from the farm. That means their great grandparent was the last person to be a farmer. But, for those who grew up among it, agriculture is everything. Other people feel the same way about their industries whether that’s marketing, travel, healthcare, or politics. Farming is no better or worse than other occupations – and that needs to be respected.
It’s not the consumer’s fault that they don’t fully understand that it takes a lot of water to grow a pound of potatoes. It’s not their fault that it’s not clear where food comes from. They don’t live it every day, and frankly, have other important things to think about that a farmer probably doesn’t think about every day. We are all different, and that’s a good thing.
Have empathy and patience when talking about these things that we have all lived our entire lives around. While I have had over 40 years of being a part of this conversation, some have less than an hour.
Know your Audience - Understand who your audience is and what they want to know, what the need to know, and what they will understand. Always keep in mind, that as farmers, we do this every day – so the details matter. Your audience wants to know who you are and trust that you’re doing better every day where you can.
Your audience is the customer and consumer – but it’s so much more. It’s employees – present and future, and their families. It’s your communities, your partners, your vendors. What do they each care about? Why does it matter?
Show the Proof - Show and tell who you are as a company, as a family and as a member of your community. Put a face on your farm – and create a brand that is connected to your culture. If that is not established, the date and technology won’t matter. Your farm is not a one and done, it’s not a check-list – is a living, breathing organization that has a purpose. Show that.
Create Partnerships - Align yourself with those who have similar values and want the same things. Be aware of others that are a one and done, focused completing a checklist. As we all know, you are who you surround yourself with. How well do you know your partners, vendors and yes, even customers? Do they align with your values and your visions of a future? One bump can make a huge impact – even if you’re not directly responsible. Or one lift from a partner can elevate your purpose and business to help achieve that mission.
Have a Voice - When there’s an opportunity, take it. Share how you started, the challenges you’ve faced, and what you’ve learned. Do not let those who have never had to depend on the weather tell your story. Do not let those who think that the less technology you use, the more sustainable the farm. Tell your story. Do not let those who use fancy words with no meaning tell your story. It’s yours. Own it.
Be You - Last, but not least – be authentic. There is no need to make up a persona or a story to be relevant. Farmers are who they are – and each one is different. They have gotten to where they are for all different reasons. Some are funny. Some are serious. Some go at it alone; some have an entire team. Do not try to be the farmer down the street. Be you.
Also – Never use this image or anything like it when talking about sustainability. Ever.