The Faces Behind Farmers FightThe Hand That Feeds U.S. sat down with Caroline Black and Jasmine Dillon—two students Standing Up for agriculture.
Growing up on a cattle farm in Commerce, Georgia, Caroline Black knew a thing or two about agriculture—extracurricular activities for her included showing livestock and holding leadership positions in 4-H and the Future Farmers of America (FFA).
But the enthusiasm that she has today for the importance of "agricultural literacy"—as she puts it—stems from her time spent away from the farm, as much as from her background.
Caroline has interned for a commodity group, been a student teacher in a high school agricultural education program, completed an agricultural fellowship in the U.S. House of Representatives and researched the effectiveness of social media during a food borne illness outbreak.
Through it all, Caroline says there is one thing that stood out: "Agriculture has to have advocates all across the industry in order for tomorrow's food, fiber and fuel to be produced."
And so, after graduating from the University of Georgia with a BA in Agricultural Education, Caroline went on to pursue a master's degree in Agricultural Communications and Journalism at Texas A&M University. And there, she met Jasmine Dillon.
Jasmine attended Texas A&M as an undergraduate studying Animal Science. During that time, she was given the opportunity to study abroad in Brazil, and went to the IMS Regional Meat Conference.
"While there," Jasmine said, "I was struck by the fact that there are many people going to bed hungry in this world—a population that is projected to grow. It dawned on me that my training as an animal scientist was ultimately preparing me to meet the needs of that hungry population. I saw that no matter where in the chain I worked, I would be working to feed people, and a passion was ignited."
Today, Jasmine is in the second year of her master's program in Animal Breeding & Genetics at Texas A&M with Caroline and together, they have found a way to ignite that passion in others, through a campaign they call: Farmers Fight.
After watching the first, but very powerful and informative video made by the Farmers Fight team, The Hand That Feeds U.S. caught up with both Caroline and Jasmine to discuss the progress of the campaign and what they see for Farmers Fight—and farmers in general—moving forward.
THTFUS: How did the Farmers Fight campaign come to be? What was your goal when you started? Has that goal changed at all?
CB: The idea for Farmers Fight was born last fall when Mason Parish and a group of guys in Texas A&M University's Alpha Gama Rho fraternity realized how much negative press agriculture was receiving. Through films like Food Inc., advertisements about factory farming, and news releases on different food borne illnesses naming agriculture the bad guy, this particular group of students at TAMU knew they wanted to depict misconceptions about agriculture. Then, a Yahoo article naming agriculture the number one useless major ignited the initiative.
JD: As Parish rallied support for the advocacy committee, a team of "lead advocates" was formed to head up the initiative and begin "telling the story of agriculture" by sharing factual information with the American consumer in new, unconventional ways. It quickly grew into an idea for a campus-wide advocacy day involving College of Agriculture & Life Sciences organizations, and then blossomed into a movement that would encourage, empower and prepare students to "stand up" for agriculture, as a lifestyle, not just for one day.
CB: January and February were spent planning the advocacy training, brainstorming and outlining booths for our Farmers Fight Day on campus. One of our advocates, Victoria Pilger, even led efforts to write and design an agricultural coloring book to be donated to the elementary schools in the Bryan/College Station, Texas area.
By the end of the planning stage, more than 240 students had completed advocacy training.
THTFUS: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing U.S. agriculture today?
CB: There is a lot of information out there that sits at the fingertips of consumers. I believe the biggest challenge facing agriculture will be the dissemination of factual information that is industry based. As the world's population climbs to the predicted nine billion by 2050, it will take all types of production to feed the world. It is vital that the industry stay connected to the latest trends of media in order to reach all consumers. If media can choose to tell our story, why can't we?
JD: It's true—the biggest challenge facing U.S. agriculture today is the disconnect between agriculturalists and consumers. We have lots of information, we have lots of science and technology, and we have lots of dedicated and hardworking people in agriculture. But without a bridge and vehicle to convey that information, we are stranded on an island. We need to construct a bridge that will lead to a more productive dialogue.
THTFUS: Is this an issue that became important to you once you decided your future would be tied to agriculture or because it had been a major part of your past?
CB: Though I have an agriculture background, this issue really hit home when I interned at the Georgia Peanut Commission (GPC). One of the nation's most deadly food borne illness outbreaks took place during my time at GPC, when Salmonella was tracked back to a plant in Blakely, GA. These farmers had to get the correct information to consumers, or risk losing their entire industry.
JD: I am not from a "traditional" agricultural background. I was born in Newington, CT and grew up in Plano, TX. I always had a passion for animals and aspired to be a vet, but took a class with my high school's agriculture teacher, who taught me about FFA.
I raised a pen of rabbits that semester, went on to raise a goat the next year, and finally (my senior year), raised a steer. During those three years, I took agriculture classes as electives and had a number of agriculture teachers who impressed upon me the importance of responsible animal stewardship. But this issue really became important to me when I realized that despite the fact that I was pursuing a degree in animal science, I hadn't been a very good advocate for it to those around me. I had family members whose consumption decisions were influenced by misinformation and I realized it was time for me to "stand up" and advocate for all of agriculture—not only to my family members, but those I encountered in my everyday life.
THTFUS: Do you have plans to expand Farmers Fight? What makes it different from other campaigns?
CB: Farmers Fight is currently in the planning stages of growing our efforts on the campus of Texas A&M, seeking financial support and backing from agricultural groups and organizations, as well as reaching out to other universities to join our initiative. We're already planning the 2012-2013 school year's advocacy training, community outreach opportunities, advocacy day and other special events.
As our campaign continues to grow, releasing more empowering videos like Jasmine's "Farmers Fight - Stand Up!," we have made a goal to invite other students at colleges of agriculture and Land Grant Universities to join our mission and attend an annual advocacy training at Texas A&M University.
JD: We have already received interest from students at other universities interested in bringing the movement to their campuses. We have encouraged students not to "bash" other commodity groups, as we are all a part of agriculture and will continue to play major roles in providing for a projected population of nine billion people.
Because this idea originated from students, was executed by students, and is being passed on from student to fellow student, you have a crucial population electing to work towards a common mission, so to speak, and committing to promote agriculture together with other students. It is one thing to have a good idea promoted to you by someone whose opinion you respect, it's another to choose to join that person or a group in its mission because you believe in it at your core.
We need to build on an open, honest relationship between agriculturalists and consumers; a relationship based on trust and a common commitment to providing our society with a sustainable, safe food and fiber supply. And we're hoping our fellow students can help get us there.