Farming and Food Narrative Project

March 22, 2024

Farmers know farming is a complex endeavor with competing demands and economic pressures. The non-farming public thinks farming is hard labor but otherwise simple.

Farmers know that crop-destroying pests take the form of insects, diseases, weeds, nematodes, birds and mammals, and that managing pests requires an array of integrated tactics. The non-farming public thinks pests are just bugs and the only control farmers use are chemical pesticides.

Farmers know sustainability – economic, environmental and social – is key to long term success. The non-farming public doesn’t think about sustainability at all.

These are three of the findings of a long social science research effort designed to create greater public understanding of agriculture in America. Called the Farming and Food Narrative Project, the effort took a deep dive into what experts know about farming and what the public thinks it knows about it. It looked at the cultural models or prisms the public views farming. Finally, it developed a list of conversation or framing strategies for communicating to the public about agriculture that are designed to bridge those gaps.

“Our purpose is to create and widely disseminate tools and training that help farmers, scientists, food and agriculture organizations, and businesses communicate and collaborate more effectively with their stakeholders—despite differences and disagreement,” the project website explains. “We envision new narrative elements, economic incentives and better-informed policies that make good farming practices more possible, more profitable, better understood, and therefore more widespread so that more farmers, citizens and all of society can benefit.”

Launched in 2016 and funded by several organizations including most recently Western SARE, the research unfolded in three distinct steps. First it mapped the gaps in understanding of farming and food production between agriculture experts and the non-farming public. Second, it took a deep look at the ways farming is written about and discussed in the media, since those discussions affect people’s understanding and perceptions of topics.

Finally, it tested and proposed reframing strategies to change the way ag experts and media talk about farming to better educate the public about farming and farm practices. At each of those stages, the project researchers published extensive report, all available here.

The reframing strategies were unveiled at workshops in Oregon and California over the summer and in each session people from the agriculture press, commodity groups, individual farmers and university communicators learned about the strategies and discussed how they could be applied in their communications to the public. Many have also participated in monthly reframing exercises where communicators can test out and talk through reframing ideas more specific to their work. (See sidebar)

“Framing is the process of making choices about what we say, how we say it, what we emphasize, and what we leave unsaid,” the third project report explains. “Framing matters because these choices shape how people think, feel, and act. Frames affect whether we think an issue is important, whether we think of it as a private, personal problem or a shared social concern, and the kinds of solutions we support.”

Without sufficient explanation, just listing the six proposed reframing ideas wouldn’t be very helpful, but they are all explained in detail in the third project report. The gist, however, is pretty simple and several dozen ag communicators have gotten the message and more will as additional workshops are held.

The bottom line: Connect farming to society and tell science-rich stories.

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Topics: Education and Training
Related Locations: West