Commodities, agribusiness and the importance of who's telling the story

Commodities, agribusiness and the importance of who's telling the story

 Signage at the 2013 Commodity Classic

Used under creative commons license from USDAgov

Large commodity farmers in the U.S. have done well in the past few years, with major crops reaching record prices. According to the USDA, net farm income in 2010 was up more than 20 percent from 2009, and 2011 and 2012 almost double 2009’s numbers. All this good news was reflected in the festive atmosphere at the Commodity Classic 2013, the annual meeting for the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Sorghum Producers held at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center just outside Orlando, Florida in early March.

In a bland, cavernous meeting room occupied by 1,699 commodity farmers, and me, the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told us that U.S. agriculture has produced record exports over the last four years. Down the hall Bayer Crop Sciences supplied free popcorn, Koch Agronomic Services and Monsanto provided free box lunches at the trade show, and DuPont Crop Protection offered complimentary shoulder and foot messages in a little room just off to the side of the main entrance. 

With all this celebration, and Disneyworld just down the road, it is easy to overlook some of the less festive news which emerged from the workshops and “learning sessions” at the conference. These included predictions of lower prices and  incomes, “horror stories” coming out of the U.S. south about herbicide-resistant weeds that were described by herbicide sales representatives as “extremely aggressive,” and the need for farmers to have weather insurance in the face of climate change and increasing extreme weather events. The highly capitalized operations and model of industrial agriculture that are highlighted at the conference seem to be showing some serious cracks.

I was expecting production technology to be at the center of the conference, and to some extent it was, with a massive trade show exhibiting ethanol-fueled race cars, combines as big as houses, equipped with refrigerators, mobile offices and GPS technology, and handheld sensors that measure plant “vigor” and prescribe fertilizer applications. However, a sole focus on production was set aside in the workshops, and the general sessions where industry and agricultural commodity associations exhorted their members to tell their own stories.

An example was the workshop titled “Green Beans: The Importance of Providing Sustainable Soy to Your Customers Around the World,” sponsored by The United Soybean Board and Checkoff. The vice chair of the United Soybean Board, introduced the session by describing the new pressures emerging from export markets in Europe and Asia. Importantly, these export markets are demanding sustainable “green” soybeans. He reported that one of U.S. soybeans’ biggest customers in SE Asia would be demanding “100 percent sustainability” within 5 years, and that both China and India were focused on sustainability. 

Christopher Brown, Head of Ethical and Sustainable Sourcing for ASDA Stores (a large UK retailer acquired by Walmart in 1999), described the importance of sustainable and ethical sourcing to their stores. ASDA is being pushed by its customers to provide sustainable products, and to better address sustainability issues. Speaking to the soy farmers, Brown stated that ASDA is being pressured on the issue of soybeans, primarily because of images of rainforest destruction in South America reaching consumers. This, he said, provides a particular opportunity for U.S. soybeans. In addition, he stated that the GMO issue is very sensitive, and the last time the issue came up for ASDA, he received 3000 emails.

Tim Venverloh, director of global sustainability at Archer Daniels Midland, discussed how sustainability was a “global conversation,” in which the U.S. could get left behind. Again, the issue of South American soybean suppliers arose when he stated that “rainforest encroachment” was a problem and that these “rare and global treasures” needed to be protected through agricultural intensification in the United States. The push from U.S. soybean importers, from large bean crushers in Asia to retail outlets in the UK, is clearly having an impact and nudging the commodity associations approach to sustainability.

At the general session, the leaders of the four major commodity groups highlighted the importance of farmers “telling the[ir] story.” As Pam Johnson of the National Corn Growers said, “the 1 percent needs to reach the 99 percent,” referencing the low numbers of farmers in relation to the population, Erik Younggren of the National Association of Wheat Growers put forward his approach to answering the public’s demands to know where their food comes from by using social media to highlight how agriculture is a sustainable business.  

At the same session, Matthew Rekeweg, U.S. industry relations and food chain leader at Dow AgroSciences, spoke about how partnerships between farmers and industry would ensure continued access to markets and technology, which in turn would help keep farmers independent. In particular, he spoke about how Industry is taking steps to counter and “deal with those who are against our way of agriculture.” He exhorted the audience of 1,700 to tell stories of farm innovation, and to counter the organizations with “agendas and junk science” efforts to take farmers’ choice away. By supporting new technologies, sustainable agriculture practices and pushing back against “senseless bans and unreasonable delays on new technology,” he emphasized, farmers would help to ensure their own independence.

Following on the heels of the general session was a workshop titled “Join the Conversation About the Food You Produce,” led by public relations executive Linda Eatherton, who is also partner and director for Ketchum’s Global Food and Nutrition Practice. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance had contracted with the communications strategy firm Maslansky, Luntz + Partners to conduct market research. The resulting report gives insight into the constant refrain from the conference’s podiums to “tell [their] own story”.  

Eatherton stated that the more educated are “pushing their opinions on others,” and because the real facts and figures do not work (if they did, industry “would win this war on negativity”) a new tact needs to be taken. The people polled by the PR firm are not giving modern agriculture the benefit of the doubt, are suspicious of its motives, regularly challenge its facts and respond emotionally rather than rationally (USFRA 2012).

Their research showed that farmers and ranchers are perceived to be beholden to agricultural corporations that care only about profit, to the detriment of land and animals. At the same time, there is only one human face in the supply chain: that of the farmers and ranchers who can “turn this war into a respectful conversation.”

With that, Eatherton laid out a program that highlighted ways to talk about agriculture. In particular, she emphasized the need to focus the narrative on continuous technological improvement and sustainable practices that, for example, use GPS technology to regulate fertilizer application only where it is needed.

So what story can we expect to hear from commodity organizations and agribusiness in the coming years? In part we have already begun to hear it, and not only at the conference. Late last year, Anderson Cooper Live ran two segments in which the USFRA sponsored a contest to send two winners to a farm and a ranch respectively, and videos of those visits to the Martz Family Farm and Blythe Angus Ranch are available.

It is important to watch how agribusinesses partner with commodity groups to increasingly use media and adopt many of the tools of alternative agriculture, such as public visits to farms and with farmers, and a narrative based in the language of sustainability. If the Commodity Classic is any indication, all is not well with industrial agriculture, but they are definitely trying to get their story out. 

Sarah Martin is working as a fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on food security and financialization of agriculture with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.