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How to respond when non-agriculturalists say goofy things

Jonathan Knutson recalls times he has respectfully engaged with non-agricultural types about the need for agriculture, and the times he kept his mouth shut.

Bottle feeding
The author shares how he picks his battles when talking about the need for agriculture in our world.
Republican Eagle photo by John Russett

Regular readers of this column, all seven or eight of you, know that I stress the importance of agriculturalists treating non-agriculturalists with civility and respect. When they make inaccurate comments out of ignorance, don't ridicule them. Rather, politely and patiently explain the situation as you see it.

But sometimes non-agriculturalists say things that are downright rude or foolish or both and have no interest in learning more. In these cases, it's usually best to swallow hard and say nothing or diplomatically change the subject. Here are three examples of when I did that.

'A terrible impression'

Years ago, in a different professional existence, I interviewed a Fargo, N.D., businessman who was new to the state and had a very low opinion of ag. He mentioned Fargo's Hector International Airport, a well-run, modern airport, and lamented that it's near North Dakota State University: people driving into the city during daylight see NDSU livestock facilities. "A terrible impression. The first thing they see in the city and state is a bunch of barns and animals. We look like hicks," he complained.

"Well," I said politely, "our economy surely needs to diversify. But ag's still crucial to the region's economy. It still creates a whole lot of jobs and brings in a whole lot of money. We should celebrate that."

He looked at me condescendingly and said, "That attitude is why there's a problem."

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No, I wanted to say, the problem is that you mistakenly equate a legitimate need for economic diversification with your personal disdain for agriculture. But saying that would have been unprofessional. So I counted to 10 in silence and changed the subject.

'CRP is a scam'

A few years ago I was standing in line at a convenience store in Grand Forks, N.D., when two shoppers ahead of me began talking disparagingly about the federal Conservation Reserve Program. CRP, as it's commonly known, pays farmers to take farmland out of production and plant special mixes of grasses and sometimes trees to help the environment and promote wildlife.

The two shoppers had a different take. "CRP is a scam," one of them said.

I briefly considered telling them that, yes, CRP was overused during some stretches of its existence but now is used much more wisely and prudently. CRP definitely is not a scam, I wanted to say.

However, their minds were clearly made up; nothing I could say would make a positive impact. So I counted to 10 in silence.

'Protecting Mother Earth'

I was sitting in the Minneapolis airport on my way to Washington, D.C., for the annual convention of the national ag journalists association A few seats away, three 20-somethings were talking earnestly (self importantly would be the less-charitable description) about "protecting Mother Earth," a trendy concept often favored by modern hipsters. Tearing down modern agriculture, which in their words abuses animals and the environment, was morally necessary, they agreed.

There were so many things I wanted to tell them: that modern ag may not be perfect, but that it's vastly better than they thought; that they need to visit farms and talk with farmers to learn the reality for themselves. But I was an aging, gray-haired farm kid and they were young hipsters far more likely to laugh in my face than listen to me. So I counted to 10 in silence.

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There also were times through the years when I did respectfully engage people who spoke ill of ag. I'd like to think that occasionally it made a positive difference.

How about you, Agweek readers? Like me, do you pick your spots? Drop me a line and let me know.

Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at packerfanknutson@gmail.com.

Opinion by Jonathan Knutson
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