Conversion Through Conversation

Reaching common ground is imperative to having a good discussion when attempting to bridge the knowledge gap between agriculture and the general populace.

Wanda Patsche, Welcome, MN, has been able to break the challenge of reaching a non-agricultural audience down into that basic premise while speaking out for agriculture and pork production. The advent of social media has helped her step up her game, as it has for those who are not so knowledgeable about agriculture.

Patsche has taken her learned passion for agriculture and mixed in her computer background — she worked in the IT department for Weigh-Tronix in her nearby hometown of Fairmont and ran her own computer business — to help spread the word about the pork industry.

“I’ve always been a real advocate for agriculture — definitely not as active as I am right now. I do a lot more right now with social media,” the Martin County, MN, pork producer says. Her advocacy shifted into high gear when she attended her first AgChat conference less than two years ago. “Good experience. I learned a lot, got to be with all the what I call ‘ag celebrities’ when it comes to ag social media.”

Prior to that, her exposure to social media was through Facebook, and she admits she first got a Facebook account for the same reason a lot of parents sign up for the popular social media site — to keep in touch with the children and grandchildren. Then it snowballed to keeping in touch with extended family and classmates, “and from there it extended into agriculture,” she says.

Her passion for agriculture has become a learned thing, having grown up in Fairmont. “I had a good friend who lived on a farm, and I’d stay overnight at her place, and even though she had a friend over, she still had to go out and do chores,” she says. Patsche went out to watch her friend do chores, after which she declared, “ ‘I am never going to marry a hog farmer’… [that’s] one lesson to never say never, or another lesson that God has a good sense of humor.”

Patsche and her husband, Chuck, are part-owners of Center Creek Pork in Martin County. Their farm is home to about 2,200 wean-to-finish pigs at capacity.

The love she has developed for agriculture drives her passion to speak up and out for the industry — and more specifically, on behalf of pig farmers. After that initial AgChat conference, she knew she could handle Facebook and Twitter, “I’m not really sure about Twitter — it has such a short shelf life — but could I blog? After the conference when I decided I was going to [blog], I couldn’t even say the word ‘blog.’ I don’t have a journalism background; I don’t have a communication background. Why do I think I can do this?”

So, just why did she think that she could blog?

“I can reach so many more people with a blog,” she says. One of her most popular blogs had 70,000 views. “I figure as farmers, we are only 1% to 2% [of the U.S. population]. There is such a huge disconnect between the consumer and the farmer and what’s going on out here, and I attribute a lot of that to the Internet.” To research a topic, one used to have to head to the library, or rely on traditional news sources. The Internet allows consumers to get all the information they need any time of the day, she says.

With that instantaneous and constant information flow, Patsche sees consumers looking for information about where their food comes from. Also, with all that information floating around, the opportunity for the dissemination of misinformation is a real possibility.

Patsche says the Internet gives consumers an opportunity to form their own opinions based on what they are seeing online. The reality is, right or wrong, a lot of those opinions are formed because they lack the farming background.

Patsche sees her mission as reaching out to consumers to tell the farming story, so that they may be better informed and develop more balanced opinions. “They have questions, and there’s no doubt they want to know,” she says. Patsche says she has worked to put herself out in front of consumers as a “face of farming.” “I try to use lots of pictures to show what’s going on out here,” she explains. This strategy has opened her up to some interesting dialog between inquiring minds. Realizing not everyone will agree with her views nor have a basic understanding of modern agriculture, she at least hopes to maintain respectful conversations with those she encounters online. “If you’re respectful, even if you disagree with me, I’m OK with that,” she says.

An example of just such dialog came a few years back when Target announced it would no longer buy pork from farms that used gestations stalls. “I went to the Target Facebook page to start a conversation to question their policy, and to explain why we use gestation stalls,” she relates. A California person replied to Patsche’s post in a not-so-nice manner. “It was typical, name-calling, combative, very negative. Well, I took a step back, broke it down and found that we shared a common value of animal welfare, that we do care for our animals,” she says. “Once I did that, the conversation went from negative, felt like we weren’t going to get anywhere; but by the end of the conversation, the person said, ‘Well, I know I can’t do this, but I’d actually like to give you a hug.’ ”

This conversion conversation took a few hours in a single day.

Another example: In December over Twitter, Patsche monitored a tweet from a health fitness site touting a blog written by a “health-fitness guru” with the headline “Do not eat meat coming from a factory farm.” Patsche says, “So I simply responded, ‘Why?’ ”

Because that particular blogger had more than 500,000 followers, Patsche says she figured he would not reply to her single-word tweet. “Well, he replied, and asked, ‘Well, didn’t you read my article?’ ”

Patsche took the time to take a closer look at the article and discovered her assumptions about the tone of the article were correct. After she replied that she had indeed read the article, she remembers he “started spewing animal cruelty: ‘How can you do this to the animals?’ Just what you’d expect, just boom, boom, boom.”

Patsche suggested that he may need to take some anger management classes. While he denied the need for such classes, he did offer to read any sources that she could provide supporting animal agriculture’s side.

As luck would have it, Patsche had just written a blog in response to an article published in Rolling Stone magazine titled “Animal Cruelty is the Price we Pay for Cheap Meat.” Patsche sent the article, and the blogger said he read it and enjoyed it. She notes, “He said he is always willing to learn.”

Patsche replied, “I am, too.” That was the key right there. A confrontation turned into a conversation.

At that time the guru suggested that he and Patsche do an online question-and-answer session to further discuss the issues, but that has yet to materialize.

“I think he was so surprised that he was talking to a farmer. Who talks to farmers? When you’re sitting in New York, LA, who has actually talked to a farmer? Not many. He probably didn’t think I was real. … These experiences like that keep me going,” she says.

Patsche realizes she may not change everybody’s minds that she converses with online, but she knows that in the proper forums, she reaches more than the one individual with whom she is actively communicating. In the example of the fitness guru, he has over 500,000 followers, so all of those followers had the potential to be following the entire conversation. “I know there are a lot of people out there on the fence, who don’t know agriculture, so they don’t know what to think or believe,” she says.

Patsche can relate, as she had to learn about agriculture herself. She remembers, “Even though I grew up in a rural community, I didn’t know farming. I didn’t care if it rained or not, didn’t know why they plowed.”

Though agriculture and the swine industry are her main passion, she doesn’t bind her social media outreach to only those topics. “I write about whatever is fresh at the time.” She also doesn’t set a schedule for her blogs, though she does try to update Twitter and Facebook daily. “I would like to blog each week, but I’m not going to force it.”

One such blog topic that was fresh came to her during the Minnesota Pork Board’s training session for a new outreach program called Pig3D.

“We were sitting around in the training, and the leader asked what was the biggest misconception or issue that drove us crazy,” she says. “Well, I went first, and I said the term ‘factory farm.’ As we went around the room, most everyone said about the same thing, so I thought, ‘Hmmm, blog post.’ Take the factory out of farms, we’re just farms.” After posting her blogs, she monitors her readership, as well as who is sharing her writings.

She discovered that a follower of her blog had shared this particular blog with a college professor from San Diego, who suggested it be submitted to The New York Times. Well, I never thought that big, but I thought about the [Minneapolis] StarTribune, and knew they printed some pieces about conventional farming in a bad light, and I figured ‘They put articles like that in there, why heck, what do I have to lose?’ ”

She sent that blog off at about 7 one evening, and didn’t think much of it, taking the time for a zoo visit with her grandchildren. She wasn’t aware that her blog was picked up until her husband, Chuck, told her there was a telephone message, “about some story I had written that got in the StarTribune.” A quick check of social media revealed comments were rolling in — some positive, but also some negative, as one would expect from such a piece appearing in a metropolitan newspaper.

Just as she had to learn agriculture, Patsche has had to learn how to respond to the negative comments. “My initial reaction would have been to lash out,” she says. “I’ve got thicker skin now. I know to fight back doesn’t help at all. Now I take a step back, listen to what they’re saying.”

She has the shoulder of two closed groups of advocates— Common Ground and Women in Advocacy — like-minded bloggers who share such feedback and can help each other on how to react.

As she said before, Patsche blogs about what is fresh and personal to her at the time. This means her topics aren’t always farm- or pig-related. “Last December I did the 24 days of random acts of Christmas kindness,” she says. “People like to see that farmers are human and that we are real.”

Through her advocacy, Patsche loves the interaction she can have with people, as well as the chance to share the real story with consumers. “When people ask questions, I feel there’s accomplishment there. People are asking questions.”   

Blog: www.mnfarmliving.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/minnesotafarmer

Email: [email protected]

On Twitter: @MinnFarmer

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