For the past three years, a select cadre of farm women has volunteered to personally connect consumers around the country to farming. More than 110 members strong and representing 16 states from Delaware and South Carolina to North Dakota and Colorado, the women of CommonGround have logged tens of thousands of visits with non-farmers as well as training peers. They use social media, traditional media and in-person visits to open conversations about food and food producers.
CommonGround is a joint NCGA and USB initiative. along with state affiliates. First introduced in 2011, these volunteers have worked hard to get the farm and food message out to consumers. CommonGround participants recently appeared in a mini-series on The Balancing Act, a morning talk show on the Lifetime channel and recorded more than 6.4 million impressions. Members have conducted more than 161 million 'conversations' with consumers. Their national Facebook page alone has almost 25,000 followers, and each state page adds to that. In addition to social and other media events, the states involved in CommonGround have hosted an average of 125 special events each year.
The women of CommonGround share their expertise with each other and with their audiences around the country as they educate, inform and communicate about agriculture. Sara Ross, Minden, Iowa, and Kristin Reese, Baltimore, Ohio, have been members of CommonGround since its inception.
Ross helps her husband Kevin on the 600-acre family farm with its row crops and 75 head cow/calf herd, raises two young sons and works with her dad's independent insurance agency. Her schedule didn't stop her from responding positively when the Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) told her about CommonGround.
"My husband was ICGA president-elect at the time, and we saw that when others told the farm story, it was not always accurate," says Ross. "We thought having farm wives reach out to their urban counterparts was a good way to educate consumers."
In the three years since, Ross has done her share telling the story. Through her blog (sarashousehd.com) and other work in social media, personal appearances and more, she creates an opportunity for dialogue with strangers. In return, they often comment and ask questions, giving Ross the opportunity to respond and help them better understand agriculture.
Understand their point of view
"I'll try to strike up a conversation to explain our point of view and understand theirs," says Ross. "Most of the time, it doesn't get real scientific. The average consumer is so removed from agriculture that they are not even sure where to find a farmer to talk to when they have a question or position on an issue. I neither argue for or against, but simply explain my position. I would like to be the farmer they go to when they have a question or concern."
Ross relates well to the non-farmers she encounters. Though raised in a rural community, she knew little about where her food came from. "I've learned a lot about farming from Kevin, but I've learned even more from my fellow CommonGround volunteers," says Ross. "If I get a question about dairy farming that I can't answer, I bring a fellow dairy farm volunteer into the conversation or get the answer from them."
Recently, Ross was one of four CommonGround volunteers sharing what she has learned and her lifestyle with 400,000 daily viewers of The Balancing Act. She spoke about GMOs and biotechnology from the perspective of her family's farming operation, but also with knowledge gained at a CommonGround workshop on biotechnology. It is a subject that often comes up when talking to consumers in person or via social media.
"People will say, 'GMOs are bad, and I won't buy any,'" reports Ross. "I'll try to find out why they think they are bad and explain why we choose to grow them on our farm. I try to present our point of view and understand theirs. I assure them we've done the research and there is no proven health risk."
Ross has taken her messages to other bloggers with thousands of their own followers. Whether speaking to 400,000 TV viewers, thousands of social media followers or a fellow grocery shopper, it is sharing her message that matters to Ross.
"Our biggest challenge is those who don't want to listen and are set in their ways," she says. "However, I've also come across many who think it is great to talk to a farmer face to face. When they thank you for the information, you really feel like you've done a good job."
Kristin Reese grew up on a typical row-crop farm in Carroll, Ohio. Today she is anything but a typical farmer. She and her husband Matt have a small farm where they raise their two children as well as sheep, meat chickens, laying hens and rabbits. They also raise alfalfa and grass hay, help out with Matt's family Christmas tree farm and advocate for agriculture. He is editor of Ohio's Country Journal and does a weekly agriculture column for state newspapers.
"I tell people ours is the picturesque red barn farm that everyone likes," says Reese. "While I speak from what we do, I emphasize that farms like those of a friend who raises thousands of turkeys or the large corn and soybean farms around us are more representative of American agriculture. This helps people relate that even though I don't do things the way others might, I can support conventional agriculture."
CommonGround and its messages have become part of Reese’s everyday life off the farm as a realtor and caterer. Whether selling a home or visiting with customers of her catering business, food production, food quality and food safety are part of the discussion.
"I was always talking to people about food and agriculture, so when the Ohio Soybean Council contacted me about volunteering with Common Ground, their concepts and goals were a natural fit," says Reese. "It has been an exciting three years, doing key influencer dinners, talking to bloggers and to individual moms with questions."
Need to talk about why
It can be challenging. She notes that you have to be able to handle criticism, sometimes even from people in agriculture who say they don't care about what CommonGround is doing.
"Our goal is not to change views, but to present the bigger picture and open up lines of communication," says Reese. "People off the farm may question decisions about how farms are managed and how food is produced. The decisions may be no brainers for us, but we need to talk about what we are doing and why."
Reese discussed the family farm on The Balancing Act and has taken part in national media tours. However, she emphasizes that each interaction with a consumer is important. A guest at a dinner Reese had organized and catered, preparing and serving her own chicken, admitted not eating meat because she didn't know who raised it.
"After visiting for a while, she told me she trusted me and would eat the meat that night," recalls Reese. "I told her that though she might not know who was raising her meat, it was hard-working family farmers like me. She said she had never thought of farmers as people, and it changed her perspective.
"Too many consumers don't realize that the majority of farms are family farms," says Reese. "We need to change that perspective. CommonGround is a way of sharing what real agriculture is all about."