How to Win in a Low-Trust World

Viewpoints / Beyond the Fencerows February 16, 2017

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By Zippy Duvall

President, American Farm Bureau Federation 

Americans’ confidence and trust in key institutions is at a historical low, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. Even institutions that have enjoyed high levels of trust in the past, such as churches and schools, have dropped in Americans’ respect and regard over the past 10 years. Others, such as banks, big business and Congress, have struggled for decades to earn the public’s confidence. Their ratings haven’t gotten any better.

Against this backdrop of skepticism and lack of trust, there’s at least one group that most Americans still respect and admire. I’m talking about farmers, of course.

The Center for Food Integrity tracks public opinion about food. CFI has asked similar questions for years now, and—year after year—consumers rate farmers highly as people they most trust on food issues. On a scale of 0-10, 53 percent of consumers rate farmers 8-10. Forty-two percent give us a grade of 4-7. That’s a lot of faith in the work we do. But we can do better.

We tend to think of growing, processing, selling and eating as different businesses, but the average person does not. It’s the “system,” they are told, that has left too many Americans fat or malnourished or food insecure, and it’s the system that has to be fixed. Farmers and ranchers tend to get lumped in with all of it.

Here are other numbers from the CFI survey that should make us take notice.

  • Even though food has never been as affordable as it is now, two-thirds of Americans say they are very concerned about food prices.
  • Sixty-eight percent of people surveyed say they are very concerned about food safety.
  • Just over half of those polled are very concerned about the sustainability of U.S. farming.
  • Fifty-eight percent are very concerned that animals may not always be treated humanely on farms and ranches.
  • Forty-two percent of Americans say they are concerned about the number of immigrant workers here in violation of U.S. law.
  • Eighty percent of Americans  want to know more about farming.
  • An amazing 95 percent of “foodies”—the 15 percent of the population who have a deep interest in the food they eat and how it is produced—say they want to know more about what we do.

I hope those numbers got your attention, because they show us where we have opportunities to build trust.

You might think more facts will convince people who don’t trust farmers. But farming is as emotionally charged as anything else people talk about. What the average American wants to know is that we care —for our land, our animals, our workers—and for them. You and I know that is already the case. We just have to show it more.

I know some farmers and ranchers don’t necessarily want to let “outsiders” in. Critical “news” stories on television or misleading comments from the Dr. Ozes out there don’t help our cause or give us farmers much trust in the media. But we cannot hide our light under a bushel. We must use all communication channels available to help consumers understand that we care about our land, water and air, and that today’s agriculture is more sustainable than ever.

There are so many ways to engage. Talk with editors and reporters with your local newspapers. Send letters to media outlets, both when they get the story wrong and when they get it right. Give tours of your farm or ranch. Participate in fairs and community events.

Farm Bureau programs can help. The Women’s Leadership and Promotion & Education committees provide training and opportunities to advocate for farming and ranching. The Young Farmers & Ranchers program, where I got my start in Farm Bureau years ago, gives young agriculturalists the tools they need to be advocates and ag leaders. Our “Engage” action center makes it easy to weigh in with members of Congress on important legislation.

Whatever you can do, it will make a big difference. The important thing is to decide to do it—to get outside our fencerows and spread the word that farmers and ranchers value the same things the rest of America cares about. We have to let our commitment and love for what we do shine through. That’s how we maintain trust in farmers and ranchers, even as trust in other parts of our society seems to be in short supply.

Zippy Duvall

Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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America’s farmers and ranchers are at the heart of our real economy.

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Farmers enjoy one of the highest levels of public trust of any group or potential source of information, ranging from scientists to government experts, and certainly more than leaders in the retail sector.

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