If it isn’t cliché yet, asking farmers and ranchers to tell their story ought to be by now since it’s often prescribed as a panacea that will fix anything wrong in agriculture. I don’t mean to diminish the impact storytelling has in shaping the minds of consumers and legislators. But I do think there’s another aspect that’s been taken for granted for too long.
Telling the story of agriculture is both personal and important. What’s even more vital though is being able to back up any story you tell with action. Arguing for policies of self-policing and industry-led solutions are certainly preferable to dealing with rules and regulations handed down from politicians. The only downside is if you don’t follow through, the bureaucrats will catch on eventually.
Those of us near farmers and ranchers often encourage them to tell their stories while neglecting to mention anything about action. This is equal parts oversight and proximity. We neglect to mention follow through because it never occurs to us it wouldn’t happen. We’ve observed countless times how a farmer’s word is as valuable as a signature. In short, encouraging storytelling has missed the real story.
It was just a few years ago when so-called “alternative protein” companies seemed to spring up overnight. Some slick storytelling generated a line of investors pledging billions of dollars to disrupt the business of growing beef, pork and chicken. The simple and straightforward pitch went something like this: Very soon, plants will replace animals as a primary source of protein because we’ve created technology that makes eating a salad seem like biting into a cheeseburger.
I apologize for taking a few liberties there, but that’s the gist of the marketing campaign that prompted a lot of well-founded fear in the production agriculture world. The storytelling was excellent and there was an actual product that kind of resembled meat. The stuff even made its way on to restaurant menus and was slotted next to the real thing at grocery stores.
Curious customers sampled the imitators in sufficient quantities that several of these companies went public, selling stock to anyone who wanted it. As the headlines rolled in about the quality and taste of this scientific amalgamation, so did the cash.
Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but it doesn’t seem that way when part of the imitation is based on putting you out of business. While technology and apparent alchemy was part of the storytelling behind turning plants into palatable protein, so was a more sinister message: eating animals is wrong.
It just so happens these companies were selling virtue to everyone with a vice of eating meat. Whether it was interest, peculiarity or oddity that drove customers to sample these alternatives, one thing is for sure they tried them because of the story.
Actions still speak louder than words. And with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of these companies are running into this reality. Sky-high stock valuations plummeted almost as fast as the novelty faded.
The imitators have gained a foothold, but it’s a niche. It turns out producing protein the old fashioned way day in and day out offers both scale and affordability that can’t be messaged away.
Shouting is certainly one way to draw attention in a crowd, but then it’s on you to hold that attention. The story is important but won’t mean anything if you can’t deliver. Farmers and ranchers have continued to deliver. Again and again their actions have spoken louder than words, and that’s a story worth telling.
“Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service.