The 3rd weekend in January marked the first ever AgChat Foundation National Collegiate Congress, an event focused on communicating farmers’ and ranchers’ stories to the consumer in a positive, memorable way. The congress participants also visited Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Ind., to see first-hand how agri-tourism is used to bridge the gap between consumers, producers, and everyone in between. Perhaps the most memorable and interesting part of the event was a panel of urban college students who spoke to the group about their perceptions of food and agriculture. To say this was a good learning experience would be putting it lightly. It was a crash course in “agvocacy” that I’ll never forget. The students attend Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), a joint university located in the heart of the city. The panel members were all at least one generation removed from agriculture. The IUPUI students came from different backgrounds and perspectives, but shared common beliefs.

First and foremost, all things food were clearly very important to them. They all believed that food should be fresh, natural, sustainable, and available to everyone. Three of the four IUPUI students preferred organic food. The student who did not prefer organic commented that organic food is expensive, and that she can prepare healthy meals for her family with conventionally grown ingredients.

The conversation was then open for questions from the congress attendees, who were practically crawling over each other for their chance at the microphone. Below are a few questions from congress attendees and answers from the panel that showcase the opinions of the panel members, who may be representative of the average urban consumer. The questions and answers are not direct quotes, but are a summary of what I heard.

Q: What is sustainability?
A: Something that is sustainable never runs out. A sustainable farm practices crop rotation, is environmentally conscious, has healthy pollinators, and will be around for the long term. Sustainable food is nutritious, doesn’t deplete our resources, and is most commonly organic.

Q: We understand that one of the participants works with food insecure populations (people who do not have financial and/or physical access to food). Would you prefer to provide them with healthy conventionally raised food or less healthy organic food?
A: Ideally, we would provide food that is both healthy and organic to food insecure populations. However, cost can be a limiting factor, and the main goal is to improve the quality and availability of food, whether it is organic or conventional.

Q: Most of the congress participants feel that food raised using conventional technology is as healthy and wholesome as organic food. Where do you think this disconnect is coming from?
A: I have seen documentaries that show “factory farms” mistreating their animals and the environment. I don’t want to eat food that was produced that way.

Q: What is your definition of “natural” and “organic”?
A: Natural food is grown similarly to how the plant or animal would exist in nature. To one of the panel members, organic means more than the USDA definition. Organic food is “alive” and feeds the soul.

Q: What sources of information do you consider most credible when it comes to food and agriculture?
A: One panel member feels that her family is the most credible. Other sources mentioned include personal experience, popular press articles, and personal testimonies.

Q: How can farmers and ranchers more successfully spread their message?
A: Get involved in other organizations. Word travels fastest by word of mouth. Contact the local media. I trust personal accounts on blogs over scientific reports from the industry.

These four incredibly courageous panel members gave up their Saturday and put themselves under the spotlight. They answered our questions honestly and did not get defensive. I can imagine that it was intimidating to be questioned by a group of proud agricultural students, and am very thankful to the panel for helping us learn more about the perceptions of the general public. The energy in the room was positive and the questions were answered as eloquently and intelligently as they were asked. The misconceptions about progressive agriculture were clear as well.

The biggest message I took home from this event was that it’s more important than ever for farmers and ranchers to start talking about what we do. We need to tell our stories at every opportunity that we get, whether it is on social media, on a blog, or during a casual conversation at the grocery store. Social opinion is influencing the way we are allowed to farm. I hope that you consider what the panel had to say, recognize that their truth and opinions are just as valid as ours, and then start a conversation.