For most adult Americans, the widespread hunger of the Great Depression and starvation during the Second World War were recent memories when the National Corn Growers Association was established.
It’s doubtful they ever imagined that farmers might be blamed for becoming too efficient or that the day would come when defending agriculture would become a major corn grower initiative.
Times have changed. In the last decade, production agriculture has faced repeated attacks often aimed at picking off one sector at a time. Corn growers have been blamed for corn being too cheap, for corn being too expensive, for corn causing obesity and for corn causing starvation.
One of the cheapest shots was probably the effort that peaked in 2008 to blame the success of ethanol for high food prices.
“That was one of the biggest challenges,” says Bob Dickey, a Nebraska grower and NCGA officer at the time.
“We did a tremendous amount of work not only to educate the consumer but to educate the news media about the facts. Since then, there’s a lot more facts that show energy costs have more effect on food prices than the commodities did – a lot of that work has come from very reputable universities.”
But beating back one attack is no longer enough in today’s contentious climate, and the corn grower response has evolved from traditional steps to set the record straight into a variety of pre-emptive efforts to inform and educate people about agriculture and food before issues come to a head.
“We talked about how we were always on the defensive from people who didn’t understand modern agriculture,” says Darrin Ihnen, a South Dakota producer. “There was interest from all the states to get all the commodity groups in one room and agree on one message, and Rick Tolman was thinking of different ways to get everyone to come to the table.”
That thinking has led to ongoing NCGA outreach efforts like the Corn Farmers Coalition to inform decision makers in Washington, D.C., and to expanded media relations.
Grower leaders from rural communities have found themselves meeting with editors at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
“My most memorable interview was with CNN in April 2008,” says Ken McCauley from White Cloud, Kansas. “They brought a satellite truck to the farm at 4 a.m., and John Roberts and I talked about why corn prices are so high and why it wasn’t ethanol’s fault – it was speculators and energy prices. That interview is still out there on YouTube.
“I think our board and officers have become better spokesmen for agriculture as we’ve been attacked more,” McCauley adds. “There’s more board members ready to talk on behalf of corn than we’ve ever had before.”
NCGA’s leaders are also better prepared to speak for agriculture. “When I was liaison to the Grower Services Action Team, I threw out the idea of advanced media training,” explains Bart Schott, now an NCGA past president from North Dakota. “As officers, we felt like once-a-year media training was not enough. We need really good training and it’s better twice a year.”
Ihnen and Dickey also pushed for better media training. “Bob and I said we need to do tougher media training and once the officers did that, the board needs to do it as well, because you never know when you’ll be in front of the media.”
Standing up for agriculture has also meant traditional publications like the Corn Fact Book, social media efforts like the NCGA blog or the Corn Farmers Coalition website, along with newspaper and television advertising.
In the process, NCGA members like the Kurt Hora family from Washington, Iowa, are serving as the face of American corn production for the millions of consumers who no longer have any personal links to agriculture.
Most recently, NCGA’s interest in bringing all of agriculture together led to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Schott is one of USFRA’s officers.
“It’s all part of agriculture coming together and having an open dialogue with our consumers,” he says. “We’re really good at producing, but we haven’t been as good at communication. This is going to open the door for consumers to ask questions and open a dialogue with producers about their food.”
“NCGA has been a leader [in making this happen]. This was a charge given to us officers at the Corn Congress,” Schott explains. “We have about 60 ag production groups involved now – this is the first time this has ever happened. Once everyone saw the value of working together, it just picked up steam.”
“Now, we’re focused on some movement advertising campaigns. I think the next step will be a good positive message to consumers about how we raise the corn and produce the livestock,” Ihnen says. “Looking back, if we could have done that 20 years ago, it could have made a difference today in how people see agriculture.”