Is Agvocating a Pyramid Scheme?

A quick Google search of “agvocate”:

“An agvocate is an individual or group that actively promotes agriculture by adding their voice to the food conversation in respectful and meaningful ways.”Agriculture More Than Ever

This is as good of a definition as any that I have heard for this made-up word.

But why actively promote an industry that people absolutely need in order to survive?

Typically, the motivation behind promoting an idea is to get people to take action in some way.

What is the call-to-action of agvocating?

I asked around on these topics and decided to write this post about my thoughts and the feedback I received.

Most agvocates seem to believe that the primary reason that they agvocate is in order to inform, educate, or connect with consumers who know very little about the food they buy every day.

This topic came up this past weekend at the AgChat Collegiate Congress. The event hosted a panel of students who did not attend “ag schools”. One of those students had very little ag background at all.

She was asked how she would feel if someone approached her as she was making buying decisions and educated her about how her food was produced.

Her response: “That would make me very uncomfortable.”

Follow up question: “Then how can we help you make more informed choices?”

Her reply was raw and honest: “If you want me to buy your stuff make it pretty and make it convenient.”

To me, this was profound in a couple of ways.

First, she did not see her purchases as a manifestation of her political beliefs about the food system. I think this is generally true about most consumers. Even many that buy labels such as “organic” or “non-GMO”.

In my experience they are not buying it out of fear of some agro-industrial complex. They are buying it out of convenience. The BRAND of “organic” or “non-GMO” says to them: “You don’t have to go looking for the highest quality food. We did that for you. How convenient.” Whether you agree with that statement or not, that’s the brand message being sent from these labels. 

Second, inherent in her reply is that she assumes, as an agvocate, you want her to buy YOUR products over THEIR products. This is significant. It begs the question: 

“If I believe your agvocating, what am I supposed to do?”

I asked questions along these lines to agvocates on Twitter and got replies such as (keep in mind they were Tweets so restrictive in length):

“Watch (the) FarmLand film; check out USFRA (U.S. Farmers & Ranchers); all commodity checkoff sites are overseen by USDA.”

“I’d ask first where they already get info. Then try to match from there. Goal is meeting them where they are.”

“…talk to real farmers, search SM (social media) hashtags, ask questions…”

(Sources to consult) “1. Friends & family, 2. News, 3. Product websites, 4. Gov’t websites (FDA…)”

“First start with normal nutrition education like what is actually needed by your body what’s good what’s bad or what’s bad in excess”

“Grow a garden.”

“Be willing to hear things that don’t normally come out of your mouth, don’t use your wallet as your only rubric, get to know RDs (Registered Dieticians)”

“Talk to farmers, spend time with them to see things first hand. Don’t just get your knowledge from Google.”

Two big observations from these tweets:

First, the “ask” of agvocates sounds like A LOT OF EXTRA WORK. Most responses center around doing more research, spending more time with farmers, or even trying to grow your own food. 

Second, there is no consensus on what the call-to-action is if anyone actually does listen to agvocates. 

To me this presents a problem. There has been great conversation around the fact that, in many instances, agvocates are just talking to themselves in an echo chamber. There has been much made of the fact that agvocates need to intentionally make connections with people outside of the industry and “find new tribes”. 

I’m totally cool with that. I get as tired of the echo chamber as anyone else. But reach out to groups in order to do what? What’s the call-to-action here? 

Some generalized ideas that seem to come up:

  1. Everyone who eats should educate themselves and ask questions #AgChat 
  2. Meet an “actual living farmer” #actuallivingfarmer
  3. Understand how important farmers are to the lives of everyone #thankafarmer
  4. “Trust us – your food is safe” #GMO #MAMyths

The fact that these are just four of the many different messages of agvocating seems problematic. Also, do these give any effort to address for the average consumer “why should i care and what is the marginal benefit to my life?”. 

This got me thinking: Is agvocating a pyramid scheme? 

One agvocate starts advocating and that eventually leads to thousands of agvocates agvocating. Now we find ourselves wondering: “what are we selling (idea-wise), or are we just recruiting other agvocates?” This gets to the heart of a pyramid scheme: there is no actual value being created or delivered, other than the recruitment of more people to the vague cause. 

Maybe this is unfair. I welcome informed discussion on the issue. If we are just recruiting other agvocates without a clear mission or call-to-action for those outside of the industry, then I don’t see a huge difference. 

This is not intended to hate on people trying to advocate for agriculture in any way. Instead, it’s to suggest that if there was a clear and REASONABLE call-to-action, then agvocating would be a lot more effective. 

By reasonable, I mean that very few people are willing to take the time to visit with farmers, read the scientific literature, converse on Twitter, and ask the experts. Most people have matters they deem more pressing. This is why they will pay up for labels because they assume that people have done the due diligence for them. 

Right now I think many consumers believe the agvocate’s agenda to be “buy our products”. For example, they believe the message is “we grow GMOs so you should buy GMOs because that’s how we make money”. Of course that’s not the intent, but without a clear alternative call-to-action, can you blame them for thinking that way? 

If agriculture is misunderstood, it’s the fault of those of us in industry not reaching out with clear and palatable messages. I don’t have all the answers, but I think some of the right questions to be asking ourselves are: 

  • Who is my audience/tribe and what value am I bringing to them by agvocating?
  • What is one “success story” of someone in my audience/tribe that benefited from a “call-to-action” as an agvocate? This doesn’t have to be from personal agvocating (everyone has to start somewhere); but what does success look like? 
  • What’s the easiest step an average consumer can take that would bring them one step closer to understanding where food comes from? 

The answers to these questions will at least give a clear idea of the desired outcome. Without knowing what that outcome looks like, we are likely just talking to the echo chamber. This can still gets likes, comments, and shares, but ultimately it offers as much real value as a pyramid scheme. 

I want to stress here that telling your personal story is totally different than agvocating. You should share your personal story and express yourself however you see fit. There does not need to be a call to action for your story. It is uniquely your’s to share with the world in your way.

But for those advocating for the industry as a whole, here would be my charge:

  1. Know specifically who you are trying to reach and what you want them to do with that information.
  2. Develop real, authentic relationships with those people based on trust. Be real about it. 
  3. Make sure your call-to-action will ultimately benefit THEM. Not just you or the ag industry. 

At the broadest of levels, it sounds like what most agvocates want is for people to chill out. Such as “GMOs aren’t going to harm you, animal agriculture is not inherently cruel, farms are not controlled by evil corporate empires, farmers do care about sustainability,” etc. So chill. Basically, agvocates are asking more for inaction rather than action. But with inaction, how do you ever know if you’re getting anywhere?  

I’m still not sure whether I’m an agvocate or not, but I do love agriculture and enjoy talking/writing about it. So I think that means I’m “part of the club”. If I’m being honest, I don’t have a strong desire to change the purchasing habits of my non-ag friends. Maybe that disqualifies me. 

However, without a call-to-action, who’s to know? 


Tim Hammerich

Tim is a strategic communications consultant, founder of AgGrad, and the host of the "Future of Agriculture" podcast. Originally from California, he is now based out of Boise, Idaho.