Dialogues are important, monologues are useless and dangerous

I stopped by the media desk at the Food Tank Summit, expecting to see some of the ag or food publication people in attendance.  Not a soul, no one was there to listen to what these young and very earnest 'do-gooders' had to say.

I walked into the auditorium and didn’t spot single Stetson or a good pair of boots.  No calloused hands or well-worn jeans, either.  I scanned the list of speakers and there was an alarming dearth of real live farmers and ranchers, at least those that could be accused of practicing ‘conventional’ farming and ranching. 

It was the same mistake made initially by the New York Times Food For Tomorrow program a few months ago. It was corrected thanks to a 'generous donation' by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Association. The Food Tank Summit organizers should have insisted on bringing some 'dirt under the fingernails' ag types to the stage to talk about conventional agriculture, whatever that is.  There should have been more of those conventional types in the audience, too.  Dialogues are important, monologues are useless and dangerous.

The Summit was a convocation of very concerned consumers and consumer activists.  Because the Summit was held on the campus of George Washington University in downtown Washington, D.C, I saw a lot of students, too. In fact, several of the speakers were students from universities around the country who had accomplished some amazing things to combat hunger in America.

What they might have lacked in years of experience, they made up for with energy and enthusiasm. They were like a lot of us older folk when we were that age of wide-eyed foolishness, seeing some of life's inherent unfairness for the first time and wanting to know why in the hell those things were allowed to happen. They saw wasted food as a felony when people are going hungry. The more subtle issue of food waste was at least a serious misdemeanor. Food production, without complete transparency on how it was ‘manufactured’ or what was in it, was a crime, too.

You might think this was just a small group of earnest young people and aging hippies with an insignificant but rabid following.  The proceedings were e-broadcast to interested folks who couldn't make the trip. I've been there before with other events and was happy when a few hundred people tuned in.  More than 15,000 watched this from around the world.  Tweets chirped loudly, outpaced only by comments made about the President's State of the Union address broadcast on all the traditional networks the night before.

I sat through two days of panel after panel, listening to commenter after commenter and was alternately delighted and dismayed with what I heard. “Good point,” I thought from time-to-time.  “Excellent idea” and “Interesting new way to look at that old problem” came to mind.

Of course there was a few coughing fit moments, too, when I heard things that were clearly not true, statements that could not be substantiated with good research or hard science.  More than once, I caught myself yelling “No!” out loud.  I realized the people who uttered those inanities from the stage fervently believed every word that escaped from their self-dedicated hearts.

During a break, I talked with the one cowboy I found in the audience of almost 400. I knew his cattleman father who dared to think differently and was considered a crazed pariah before the industry came around to a grudging acceptance of his ideas.

“I might not like what I hear,” he said.  “But I have to understand it.  After all, the only people holding the money in this whole food chain are the consumers.  If they don’t want to buy it, there is no way we can sell it.”

'Ayup!  To those farmers and ranchers still holding on to the way their great grand dad did things and ignoring the future, time to stop, listen and understand.  Those people convening at events like the Food Tank Summit see life and the food that nourishes it differently, many of them rejecting what was the 'accepted reasonableness' of the previous generations. 

Time has an occasionally unpleasant but always unstoppable way of marching on and frankly, my dear, it doesn't give a damn.  The hobnail boots it wears can trample your garden and your closely-guarded conventional wisdom in less than a heartbeat.  And it never looks back with regret.

To ignore what's being said in these venues is foolish.  To dismiss it as stuff and nonsense is to place an enormous risk on the future of your farm or ranch. You should always listen to what's being said by consumers who make you feel uncomfortable, even if you think they're undereducated in the wisdom of your ways, blind-to-the-truth, or namby-pamby do-gooders.

Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong.  A few of the things they fervently believe today will be proven wrong tomorrow.  But a lot of it will soon become the irrevocable rules of the marketing road, too.  It's your choice; you can become the incoherent old geezer yelling at the kids to keep off your turf or you can become the wise old operator who still has a good eye for the future and knows how and when change is necessary to remain relevant.