Which occupational group rivals physicians in receiving unsolicited mail? Which occupational group consumes a substantial portion of our nation’s industrial output and is the focus of persuasion from scientists, economists, financiers, legal and tax advisors, policymakers, extension agents and representatives of agribusiness?

 

If you are a regular reader of this column, you probably guessed it. Farmers and ranchers are the targets of intensive efforts of persuasion and education. But how well do people trying to influence them understand their motivations and needs? What do they need to know about farmers to be successful?

Long term view.  Farmers love their profession. Curiosity about life and growth, internal standards of excellence and a continued commitment to improvement offer a creative challenge. Farmers are applied biologists trying to manage the forces of nature and fashion a livelihood for their families.

Experience on the land gives them an understanding and appreciation of its productive capacity. Farming is never done. Tomorrow and the children’s tomorrows depend on wise stewardship of natural resources.

Farmers are committed to the continuity of their operations and take a long range perspective on innovations. They can’t afford serious mistakes. Farmers gather information from many sources and are conservative in risk-taking. The vagaries of weather, cost of production and market conditions add to their reluctance to expose themselves to high risk situations.
 
No cushion. Agriculture as a whole is an industry under stress. The farmer operates in one of the freest segments of a global market economy. There is no fixed or guaranteed income. There is no employer to take the risks or smooth over the shortfalls. Living with uncertainty and stress is the price they pay for freedom.
The freedom and control farmers experience is greatest when it comes to decisions about the use of the human, financial and natural resources at their disposal. Farmers resist control from outside but are usually amenable to influence. Within their span of control, the fabled independence of farmers is real.
 
Making a profit is crucial. Why should a farmer adopt a new idea or product? Experts often lose sight of the fact that their primary objective ought to be the economic success of the farmer. Convince a farmer that he or she can materially benefit from an innovation and that the costs of implementation are affordable, and it is likely they will do it.
Technical experts such as scientists and economists have to bridge the gap from theory to practical application. The expert with the security of a fixed income may forget about the bottom line.
There is no shortage of creative ideas or potential improvements, but there is a shortage of resources. If resources were abundant, action oriented farmers would look hard at changes they would like to make.
 
Communication and relationships.  As much energy needs to be put into presentation and communication as is put into basic research. Technical experts often neglect communication and persuasion and then are mystified why their work isn’t appreciated or adopted. Purists enamored with the technicalities and the ideal quickly lose their audience. They can’t see the prairie because of the grass.
 
Many excellent ideas are developed in another context. They have to be adapted to specific conditions. A good idea for one particular operator may not be a good idea for everybody.
 
Part of being an expert is to know a lot about a small part of the total system. A technical expert would do well to read and study broadly in related fields so that the information fits a context. The race they are running may be in their own bathtub.
Some of the experts are also inclined to be parochial to their institution or their school of thought instead of championing an idea because of its merit. What makes people persuasive is the honesty they bring to the entire discussion rather than selling a particular product.
 
The expert who comes on too strong forgets that his job is to influence, not control. The farmer doesn’t forget who actually makes the decisions and who has to live with the consequences.
 
Farmers respect results. They respect their peers. If four or five esteemed operators from a given community try an innovation and make it work, then it won’t be long before the rest will want to try it. Educational efforts can be directed at those farmers who are progressive and in an economic position to experiment.
 
Helping someone else succeed is a tremendously satisfying experience. The people supporting the farmer will succeed in their effort when they, along with the farmer, are able to look at the prairie instead of the grass.
 
Some people have too much pride to accept an idea if they don’t have it first. They prefer to hang back and criticize the others. They are not secure enough in themselves to entertain an outside idea on the basis of its value instead of judging its source.
 
Timing is everything.  The timing of a new idea may be poor. A person under intense pressure may not be objective about new ideas. Similarly, a person who has already decided on a course of action or just mastered a skill will not want to change horses in midstream, no matter how good the other horses might be.