ReachOut: How To Talk About What You Do At A Dinner Party

ReachOut: How To Talk About What You Do At A Dinner Party from Central Valley Ag on Vimeo.

Mike Zwingman

Mike Zwingman

Let me start today by setting the scene:

I’m at some party.  It’s a run-of-the-mill birthday party for a friend at [insert-fancy-chain-restaurant-here].  People are a little dressy, a little stuffy, passing plates of appetizers and spilling water.  I’m awkward as ever—in my mid-30s I’m still the weird kid at the junior high dance.  My goal is to get in, shake hands with the birthday friend, and slip quietly into the night.

But.  Oh, but.  Somebody across the table from me—somebody I know on the fringes of my brain—he remembers what I do.  And that’s when the question comes:

So Mike, you’re here representing Mon-satan, right?  (Oh, ha ha.  He meant Monsanto but he said Monsatan.  Clever isn’t he?)

Or maybe the question is: Don’t you know what you’re doing to our kids?

Or it isn’t a question at all and just an accusation: I have a gluten allergy because of you.

You’ve probably fielded the same questions, or similar ones.  Even if you’ve miraculously dodged the political-guy-at-the-dinner-party your whole life, you’ve been subjected to questions like these via the news or social media or family.  So you know that when you get a question like this, you start to burn, hot and quick.

I, of course, unleashed the beast at that particular party.  My approach to such questions has always been a scorched earth approach.  I dismiss anything and everything my opponent might say, I burn them with science and crush their spirit with the weight of a hundred statisticians.  I am an automatic fact machine: Do you know how many millions of pounds of chemicals biotechnology has kept out of our water system?  Do you know that mapping the corn genome has led to advances in cancer research?  My thinking is that if I don’t let them breathe, I will eventually win.

Well, today I’m going to invoke Rule 51 a second time in the history of this article—Sometimes You’re Wrong.

To be sure: I’m not wrong to be irritated and even offended by such questions that stab right at the heart of my livelihood and legacy.  I’m not wrong about the millions of pounds of chemicals biotech has saved from the water nor the advances in fighting cancer gained through the corn genome.  I’m not wrong to defend our industry.  What I’m wrong about is the approach.

No one wins in a scorched earth approach.  Scorching the earth means burning bridges and that’s something that in other areas of my life I take care not to do.

The truth is that that political-guy-at-the-dinner-party, that little environmental activist on CNN, that niece who buys organic granola and filters her water—they are our consumers.  And they’re worried about the safety of their food, their health, their kids’ health, and the earth’s ability to continue to provide.  And those are valid concerns.Blue Box

This doesn’t mean that we should roll over like puppies in the face of (sometimes stupid) questions.  Or that we shouldn’t get uncomfortable when someone challenges us.  But there’s no need to become a rabid dog.  We need instead to inhabit the good middle ground, to listen, and to find a voice.

Right now, other people are telling our story for us, and that story is that no one should trust American agriculture.  They’re saying that corn is dangerous.  That growers are just pawns of big, evil corporations.  They’re saying that our farms are sprawling and corporate.  That we caused the collapse of the bee population.  That we waste water, poison the earth, poison the food.

People listen to this story, and believe this story, because they don’t know.  Today, John Q Public is generations away from the farm, and every day, he gets further away.  He doesn’t know. And we’ve let other people fill in the blanks for us because we largely haven’t had a voice. And when we have had a voice, like mine at any given dinner party, it’s been harsh and overly scientific and cold.

We need to find our voice, and it needs to be one that people will listen to.  The scientific defense doesn’t work anymore because people believe science is bought (because it often is).  The scorched earth/rabid dog defense doesn’t work because it seeks to squash emotions in what is actually a highly emotional issue.

What defense I think would actually work is your story.

When you’re at that dinner party or when you meet that person in the airport or at a ball game or a PTA meeting and that question comes up, take a breath, skip the facts, and tell your story, friends.  Likely, you’re the closest connection to the farm that that person has.  They’ve heard a lot of sideways stories about what you do.  Give them the right one.

You don’t have to be Super PR Man or a marketing executive, just don’t be a jerk (this coming from the High King of All Jerks—if I can do it, so can you).  Just be yourself—your really nice, hard-working, conscientious self.  Tell your story.  Sing your song.

Because we aren’t pawns.  We don’t waste.  And we definitely don’t poison.  We’re not, in fact, a global force for evil but instead a local force for good.  We’re working to feed a growing population on a shrinking land mass, to make a living, to feed our families.  And yes, we’d feed our kids anything and everything we produce because the food source we generate is healthy and safe.

So next time you find yourself at the uncomfortable dinner party and that guy across the table poses his question, try to relax.  Smile and engage in conversation, because the conversation is better than you think.