It's been a very busy week in the food chain. Especially downstream as brands and retailers continue to face large amounts of pressure from antagonist attacks and pressure points related to sourcing policies and initiatives. Most notably in the recent news was SUBWAY and their statements on sourcing antibiotic free protein in the future. The decision SUBWAY made, while unfortunate from the lens of many in agriculture, was not nearly as bad as the way they handled the PR around the announcement, deleting negative or questioning comments from the agriculture community on their associated social media sites.
SUBWAY is not the only brand throughout the restaurant/retail sector of the food chain that faces these types of decisions. In fact, all brands will, if they have not yet eventually face a time when they have to make decisions related to how they source their ingredients, proteins and other supplies. At first, I was extremely frustrated and upset with the announcement by SUBWAY, because, as it is noted in many blogs and social media updates, it seems as though SUBWAY made their decision with a variety of misinformation and without speaking to their suppliers (farmers, ranchers, producers).
Influencing The Brands
If you want to know where SUBWAY and many other’s pressure and influence comes from, begin your search with the always neighborly Friends of the Earth (FOE). This organization has spent years building strategic relationships with brands and their procurement offices as well as public officials. They have the social reach to influence, and by in large, they are able to connect with consumers (however ill-informed they may be). Sure they use the typical scare tactics and antagonist pressure point like building scorecards rating how bad the brands policies are, but that isn’t what really matters, those are all just excuses that get no answers, what really matters are that these people are effective and influential.
Everything you’ve read up to this point has been a run on for what I’m about to say. I hope you’re still with me and still interested because the next part is what I believe is the most important.
We Can Do Better
When we (in agriculture) discuss advocating for agriculture, we usually mean things like: sharing our story, connecting with consumers, building trust through accurate information, etc. But we are always on the defensive side of things, even when we feel that we are out ahead of the other pressures. The problem that I see is that many times, we view (and want) advocating to be a short term game with long term results where we can count the number of people we influence through sharing our story.
If advocacy is to be effective throughout the food chain, it cannot be a short term game. It takes strategic, long term thinkers to recognize that we (agriculture) may not be able to change the decisions that are made today related to sourcing and policies, but we can be very effective at laying the foundation for long term relationships throughout the food chain that unite us and position ourselves as the experts, the go-to-for-answer-guys and the friends who support wise decisions throughout the food chain through tangible examples of the positive things agriculture is and does.
Relationships Build Trust
I grew up on a farm in Ohio, and I chose to move to Iowa two weeks after I graduated college to work for a small consultancy focused on making sustainability real throughout meat, milk and eggs. Part of my decision was driven by the need for work income off the farm, but the larger part of the decision came because I recognized that even with social media, it’s difficult to build relationships on the farm. That’s why people farm after all, they feel they can be left alone. By moving to Iowa, I was taking the first step in building new relationships and broadening my network of peers both upstream and downstream in the food chain.
Building relationships is the key to trust. Trust comes from developing common ground. Leaders who are able to share common ground and common values with their friends create not just friends, but followers. Simon Sinek does a nice job of explaining this theory of shared values in his work on the golden circle and in his book Start With Why. These relationships built on shared values are what truly make us trustworthy and effective as advocates and leaders.
I’m willing to bet that a majority of the CEOs and organizations that are making decisions today will be retired in ten years. The mid level folks that really get the work done in so many of these organizations will be rising to top leadership roles around that same time.
In agriculture, we face a similar paradigm shift as well. Older farmers and producers are looking for ways to retire or take a step back and the younger generations are rising to the top leadership roles. However, the younger generations have the advantage of growing up in the 2.0 era where they not only see the value of connecting with others and building those lasting relationships on and off the farm, but they are able to do it effectively in a low-stress environment because it’s what they are already used to doing.
What’s the End Game?
I believe that when you look at those two paradigms that are happening in the agriculture industry and downstream in the restaurant/retail industry, agriculture has not even begun to reach its greatest opportunity to effect change and influence decisions. By strategically laying the foundation for solid relationships now, we are creating future opportunities to be invited into the circle of influence when future decisions are made. The real problem I see us facing in agriculture isn’t our lack of influence, it’s our lack of vision for the future.
So what’s The Good News?
The good news is, we already have common ground and values with many people throughout the food chain! We all want to have a safe, nutritious and affordable food source, we all want to have a business and community to hand over to the next generation when the time comes, and we all want a healthy planet to eat, sleep and breathe in. Those simple things are the beginning of the foundation, so what’s your end game? What’s your next step to building a vision for the future that enables you to influence the future and even change the decisions made in the past? A sustainable future always has to start with a vision for where we want to go, what we want to achieve, and if done right, it will get back to those same simple values we all share.