When farmer Dave McEachern took his seat on a recent flight, the “so what do you” conversation with his seatmate ended up being a marathon discussion on food production.

A grower talking to someone about his farming operation.

McEachern was challenged on a wide variety of farming topics – from GMOs, to pesticides, to intensive farming – making for what some may say would be an uncomfortable flight. But McEachern has made these sorts of difficult conversations a part of his business.

“I run into people everywhere, be that on airplanes or parties, with family or urban friends, all who have a lot of questions about agriculture, and often those are very challenging questions,” says the Glencoe, Ontario farmer. “Some people may not think it’s a farmer’s job to explain that what they do is safe,” he says. “But I think it’s important to have farmers advocating for agriculture.”

“Food has never been safer but Canadians have never been more afraid,” says Kelly Daynard, executive director with Farm and Food Care. “While it may not always feel that way, people genuinely have a lot of interest in how food in produced. In my experience most people want to know more and farmers have a lot of amazing stories to tell.”

Listen first

McEachern says that listening can be much more difficult than people think, especially if what you are hearing is misinformation. But he says if you cut people off mid-sentence, it can be a recipe for a defensive discussion.

Consumers shopping for produce are increasingly concerned about the safety of their food.

Consumers shopping for produce are increasingly concerned about the safety of their food.

“It can be difficult not to get defensive – this is our business and our lifestyle and we as farmers are generally well informed and proud of what we do,” says McEachern. “But nothing will stop a conversation quicker than interrupting someone who is trying to be heard.”

Check your bias

Not every farmer is an expert on every aspect of farming. McEachern says a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing when getting into a discussion on food issues, so he advises farmers to speak about what they know. “I can talk about livestock as I grew up in that world but I am primarily a grain farmer,” he says. “It’s what I know the most about so I am a positive advocate for that aspect of my business.”

Daynard says growers should prepare themselves for these conversations ensuring they’re comfortable with their response.

“Write down the type of questions you think you are going to be asked and make sure you have an answer before you even try,” she says. “Then write down what you hope you are never asked because those are the toughest questions to answer.”

About two per cent of the population are farmers, and two per cent are activists. With activists the best approach is often to state your point and then walk away. But that leaves 96 per cent of the population who may be interested in learning more.” - Dave McEachern

Keep tech talk to a minimum

When talking about high tech in farming, it’s easy to want to share scientific ideas and study results. And while facts are important, it can be difficult for people to relate to technical talk.

“It’s a science-based industry but you can’t start the conversation there,” says Daynard. “Personalize your story wherever you can and then say why you trust the products and the technology you are using.”

Be aware of your audience

During that discussion on the airplane, McEachern soon realized he had a captive audience in the seats and rows around him. Some even joined in the conversation.

“Knowing others are listening, you need to stop and consider what you’re saying before you have these conversations,” he says. “Look at yourself in the mirror and make sure you are comfortable with the position you are taking,” he says. “Being confident in what you are saying helps drive your point home.”

Be informed

“Social media has its dangers but can also be a great place for conversation,” says Daynard. “In fact conversations can start anywhere, from social media to book clubs to church groups or grocery stores.

You never know where you’re going to have the chance to answer questions.”

Here are some resources to help you tackle challenging conversations.

  • Real Dirt on Farming – Published by Farm and Food Care, this comprehensive booklet covers all agriculture sectors and doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects.
  • Mark Lynas speech - Mark Lynas gained recognition for his change in position on GMO technology based on scientific evidence.
  • CropLife Canada - The CropLife Canada site contains a host of information about plant sciences—including their Confident Conversations program which provides tips for speaking about agriculture with urban audiences.
  • Speak Up! - This nationwide program teaches growers how to share their stories effectively and how to host farm tours to spread positivity about modern agriculture.