By Tom Collins
SASKATOON — Two years ago, Saskatchewan crop and chicken farmer Clinton Monchuk was combining peas with his then-four-year-old daughter in the cab. Just after finishing, his wife jumped up on the hopper and scooped up a bucket of peas. She used it to make pea soup.
Monchuk recounts this story anytime a consumer asks him about the dangers of glyphosate, which many believe could cause cancer.
Monchuk tells how he uses glyphosate on their pea crops to dry them down and kill the weeds. He talks about how his daughter means the world to him and he would never do anything to harm her.
“They can understand the value that I would put on children because they know that I’m a parent, but then to say, not only am I using these products, but we’re consuming that food as well, that truly does resonate with consumers,” he said.
Telling that personal story goes further with a consumer than just stating dry facts and statistics, said Monchuk, who will be leading a breakout session at the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s and Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan’s public trust summit in Saskatchewan in November.
Monchuk’s session is titled Dealing with tough topics: Tips and practice on the questions you hope you’re never asked.
He said the previous generations of farmers never had to defend the use of genetically-modified organisms, herbicides or insecticides. Now, as many activists are given more and more publicity and are all over social media, farmers need to be willing to speak up more often.
Here are three tips on how to handle the tough questions:
Don’t get defensive
Some consumers simply don’t know how to speak to farmers, and don’t realize the questions they’re asking may be insulting or have a negative connotation. Sometimes, a farmer can get defensive based on the question, which is a natural instinct, Monchuk said, but opening up to the questioner is better than attacking them.
“Consumers just want to know an answer,” he said. “Some of the questions that come out sound like they’re passing judgment on you, they just really don’t know how to ask the questions.”
Monchuk once talked to a consumer who, once she discovered he was a chicken farmer, told him that she was never going to buy another chicken in her life. Instead of getting defensive about the chicken industry or attacking her viewpoint, he started asking why she felt that way. It all came down to the fact the woman had watched an online undercover animal activist video where the employees had abused chickens.
Monchuk defused the situation by telling the consumer he agreed with her, and that what the employees did was wrong and should have been charged. He then explained that not every chicken farmer acts the same. He was able to show her videos he had made of his chicken barn. He now also has feeds of his barn so he can show people a live view of the barn.
That consumer left the conversation convinced that not all chicken farming was bad and was going to go back to eating chickens. That wouldn’t have happened if Monchuk had been defensive, he said.
Speak in the consumer language
Monchuk said farmers aren’t well versed in how to speak to consumers. When they do talk to the average person, farmers use science-based information, which doesn’t necessarily resonate.
“Remember, you have to speak in consumer language,” he said. “We have a tough time sometimes, when we speak in bushels per acre or tonnes per hectare, and you ask any consumer what an acre or a hectare is, and it’s just (eyes) glazing over. We need to talk in their terms.”
Those terms include telling personal stories. Once you have that shared connection, you can start throwing in facts, but it has to be in terms the consumer can understand, he said.
Be prepared to talk about farming anywhere
While manning booths at various shows and events is a good start, Monchuk says the toughest questions he’s been asked are while he’s sitting on a bench watching a hockey game or at a community event or at church.
“It’s not a formal event,” he said. “It’s usually something outside of agriculture. When they find out I am a farmer, the questions start.”
These one-off, chance one-on-one meetings can create a stronger conversation and the consumer might find it easier to trust the farmer in this type of setting, he said.