Monday, May 20, 2013

Perception is a Two Way Street

This past week I attended a professional conference for my job as the Executive Director for the Wamego Community Foundation and the Kansas Rural Communities Foundation. It was a great conference and I learned a lot, but it did stretch my comfort zone just a bit. It was not so much the information I learned that stretched me, but some of the people I met.
One day at lunch I found myself seated across from a lady from California who proclaimed herself a vegetarian. I braced myself for an uncomfortable conversation and meal. One interesting thing I did learn from her was that apparently salmon is a vegetable, because she did admit to eating it occasionally. So there I sat, across from a vegetarian from California, my ag advocacy training was going to be put to the test.
One of the other people at the table asked her about her choice to be a vegetarian was it for health reasons or something more moral. Her answer shocked me; it certainly was not what I expected. She stated that she had nothing against eating meat or the people who raised it, she just like vegetables and fruits. She went on to say that she was an avid gardener with a large garden and hated to see anything go to waste. Apparently the garden produced enough food to meet most of her needs and she had grown accustom to not eating meat.
As lunch went along we all continued to make small talk and eventually the conversation turned my way. I explained that I was a part-time Executive Director and my full-time job was as a rancher in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I explained that I was the fifth generation in my family to farm and ranch and that some of our farm had been in our family since the 1800’s. While my colleague for California did not ask any questions about my agricultural pursuits, she also did not seem upset by them. This was a far cry from what I thought would happen.
Later on during the conference I met another “aggie” who was very relieved to find someone else from rural America. However, she was very concerned that among the attendees of this conference on fund raising were representatives from the Humane Society. I too was concerned and again put my ag advocacy cap on and decided to learn more.
The representatives from the Humane Society turned out to be representatives from the Kansas Humane Society in Wichita. This was a major relief, the Kansas Humane Society in Wichita is a cat and dog shelter, their mission is to reduce the number of homeless cats and dogs. In fact, in their mission statement they assert that they are in no way associated with or funded by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). They are fulfilling the needed work with pets that many falsely associate with HSUS.
I did not see my fellow agricultural enthusiast to let her know that the Humane Society representatives present were actually the good guys. Both of these encounters got me to thinking. I truly believe in being an advocate for agriculture and telling our story whenever possible and telling it to everyone. However, there are times that we must also take a step back, not be defensive and listen.
Too often I think we have this idea that all of society is out to get us; we look for opposition at every turn. It is true that the anti-agriculture and especially the anti-animal agriculture movements are growing (or at least getting louder), but many people are at least accepting if not supportive of farmers and ranchers. That is why we need to not get defensive, go on the offensive too soon and stay positive with our message.
Did I have a positive effect on the vegetarian from California? I don’t know, but I would like to think I did. I hope that she went back home with the thought that Flint Hills Ranchers are nice people. Were the Humane Society of Kansas people supporters of animal agriculture? I don’t know, but I do know that confronting them like they were against us would have had a negative effect. I do know that they serve a needed role in Wichita and seem to be doing good things to help curb the pet population.
We need to make sure that we continue to tell our story about how much we care for the land, how we go the extra mile to produce safe food and to let everyone know the pride we take in what we do. However, we must also take an extra second to find out where the person sitting across from us is coming from. Communication is truly a two way street.

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