#onthefarm with Mace Thornton

January 6, 2010

For the first #onthefarm of 2010, I asked Mace Thorton (aka @AFBFMace) to join me. He works in public relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization.

Next week in Seattle, the AFBF will hold its 91st annual convention, so I thought it would be a nice preview of what AFBF is up to and what Mace is looking forward to for the convention. Very interesting interview. One of the things that jumped out at me was how Mace is noticing more farmers adopting social media–and making it part of thier business plans (see Q9). A good example that has been passed around lately is Chris Chinn, a Missouri hog farmer. She produced a YouTube video for a “behind the scenes” look at her family’s hog farm. The new methods of communication are allowing farmers to hold conversations with non-farmers.

Before you get to the interview, I’ll highlight that you can follow all the action from AFBF’s Seattle convention by checking out www.fb.org, following the #AFBF10 hashtag on Twitter or meeting Mace and many others at a tweet-up at the Monsanto booth on Sunday at 3 p.m. or Monday at 8 a.m. You can find out who’s attending here.

Thanks for reading!

Nick

n_web: Q1: Thanks for joining me today. Give me a little background on yourself and what you do for American Farm Bureau.

AFBFMace: Grew up on a VERY small hog farm in NE Kansas. I like to say it was free-range pork before free-range pork was cool. Studied journalism at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. Worked at a couple Newspapers in Kansas before starting with KS FB. Started with Kansas Farm Bureau in 1985 and then joined staff of AFBF in 1990. Been here ever since. Today, work in lot of areas: PR, media relations, speechwriting and issues managment. Love working with Farm Bureau volunteers!

n_web: Q2: What are your main responsibilities for AFBF? We’ve seen you active in SM . . . what else do you do?

AFBFMace: I spend a lot of time monitoring issues and assisting with the general flow of PR strategies and tactics at #AFBF. Social Media has stormed onto the scene within this past year to become a vital communications tool. Get involved in everything from news releases to assisting AFBF President Bob Stallman with his speeches. But most of all, it is a pleasure working with all our committed Farm Bureau members who are high-end communicators thru SM.

n_web: Q3: What’s the background on AFBF? What is its mission? All 50 states have a FB, correct? AFBF represents all FBs, right?

AFBFMace: AFBF is nation’s largest general farm organization. We represent producers of all ag products, of all sizes and from all regions. AFBF a true grassroots org. Every policy in our book, given time, could be traced to indiv. farmer at state or county FB level. Depending on state, scientific surveys show that between 7 or 8 out of every 10 farmers in U.S. is a member of Farm Bureau. We are recognized as “The Voice of Agriculture,” but it is our combined grassroots voice that makes us effective.

n_web: Q4: That’s interesting on the policy statement. Can you give an example or two, whether it’s “big” or “small” policies?

AFBFMace: In general, our policy positions tend to take position that is for the overall good of production agriculture in general. It is amazing to have such diverse group of farmers involved in policy process & result in a comprehensive book of positions.  Farm Bureau members do not always agree on every issue, but it is amazing how differences — region, crop, size — are put aside. Culmination of our policy process is coming up…this coming week in Seattle at AFBF’s 91st annual meeting #AFBF10.

n_web: That gets to Q5 from @Mica_MON: “how do you manage the different interests of members? Have to imagine there are conflicts?”

AFBFMace: First there must be a recognition of what we can do that is best for THE WHOLE of American agriculture. Grain producers do not always agree with livestock producers, but more often than not, they rise above the fray. We like to think of ourselves as that big tent ag organization, where ideas can be debated, deliberated and approved. And, when there is disagreement, our grassroots structure allows individual members to state their case and work for change.

n_web: Q6: So there’s a small meeting happening in the Great Northwest next week . . . can you talk about that a bit?

AFBFMace: Our 91st annual meeting will be held in Seattle. Farmers, ranchers, growers from all across the land will gather there. We like to think of it as great big reunion of the Farm Bureau family. Conferences. Trade Show. Headliners. And policy setting. We are also planning an on-site tweetup or two during the meeting. All tweeps on site can join in. Expecting about 4,500 people to attend the meeting, but won’t know until all is said and done. This is the beginning of our policy year and sets the positions that will guide the American Farm Bureau throughout 2010. But our ability to represent ag all boils down to our most basic unit…the country Farm Bureau. That’s where it all starts. Have not been to Seattle for a while, so it should be a great meeting. And looking forward to seeing a lot of tweeps in person

n_web: Q7: How has/will technology change the annual meeting? I’m guessing in the past it was a chance to share info once a yr. Farmers are on twitter, facebook, blogs, etc. sharing more info than ever. So, guessing just means more info is shared?

AFBFMace: We always wrestle with the immediacy of modern communication and the fact that we set policy positions once a year. What technology has done for us is open up new and additional avenues of communication with our members. Our BOD is comprised of state Farm Bureau presidents. They do great job of interpreting policies as they hear from their mems. Communication and the new tools at our disposal have made us an even more responsive organization, in my opinion. We are able to mobilize our grassroots members in ways we only dreamed about before. It allows us to share late-breaking information and get it into the hands of members at the farm level, who can use it. An organization is only as good as the commitment level of its members, and we have some of the most committed I know of.

 n_web: Q8: Are you finding some of the info is info overload, or are the members embracing the quicker flow and amt of info?

AFBFMace: In this day and age, there is a risk of info overload. Being able to discern what is useful, topical and relevant is vital. Farm Bureau members on Twitter and Facebook, for example, are very open to the latest and best info we can throw their way. It has made those of us who are “professional” communicators become better and to be more relevant. Our members have ample sources of info at their disposal already. Keeping the huge mountain of info in perspective is our goal. And we are communicating differently. Engaging on top of educating. Farmers and ranchers are taking it that extra step.

n_web: Q9: Farmers realizing they need to become part of convos. I like what @shaunhaney said: 2010 is yr of “Telling our story” Agree?

AFBFMace: Very much agree. For years we have talked about helping farmers do a better job of telling their stories. Now it is happening. Through social media. Through public TV shows like America’s Heartland. Through personal engagment at the local level. Engaging with consumers really has taken form in a big way. #agchat is part of that, but we can see it all across the board.

n_web: I think it should be stressed that in this convos, farmers can’t take the criticism too personally. Take convo as opp to explain

AFBFMace: More and more farmers are making engagement and communications a part of their formal business plans. A PR person’s dream. Ag has always been criticized. But clearly, our farmers today are rising above emotion and communicating about their values. Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integ put it best in a recent conversation. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. That is our ag comm philosophy in a nutshell.

n_web: Q10 from @NEFarmBureau (prob relates to next wk’s meeting): “What public policy issue concerns you the most as 2010 begins?”

AFBFMace: Issues? There will be a lot. Start with our opposition to Climate change legislation. Even USDA says it could cut our food and crop acres by 59 million acres. We have grassroots #DontCap our Future campaign to oppose climate change legislation. FB Members have responded bigtime. We also want to ensure that while all Americans have access to healthcare, that we maintain structure of our PRIVATE system. We also hope to see progress in areas of trade, labor and regulations that impact our farmers and ranchers on the ground. With estate taxes roaring back to life after 2010, we will push hard for reform in that area to protect family-owned ag. Water is a big issue. We see that in California right now. It will continue to present a challenge on availability side.

n_web: Q11: You have a unique perspective being in DC and repping 50 FBs. What opps/challenges do u c in next 5 yrs for all of ag?

AFBFMace: Our mission at Farm Bureau is to enhance and strengthen lives of rural Americans and to build strong, prosperous communities. Rural development must continue to be a focus. Technology is going to be a huge help in that area. The need to continue to speak out above the values that drive our commercial scale producers. While tools our producers use today are different, their use is still guided by the same rock-solid values of their ancestors. Opportunities are ahead like never before to really forge that deeper understanding with consumers, and I think we will do it. I think you will see Farm Bureau members become even more active and visible on a lot of fronts…thanks to new comm tools. They will do an even better job of engaging on topic of WHY they do WHAT they do.

n_web: Final Q: What didn’t I cover that you would like to point out to folks?

AFBFMace: I am hopeful that everyone will have a chance to hear, if not in person, AFBF Prez Bob Stallman’s speech next week. We will post. It will be available at www.fb.org, as will the full annual meeting info and details as the news becomes available. Looking forward to hearing NFL great Terry Bradshaw at our meeting too. See what he has to say about ag.

n_web: Q from @Porkchop1950: What is the best way for non-ag producers who are active with farmers and ranchers to get involved?

AFBFMace: Let farmers know you care. Ask to visit a farm and ranch and be open to learning about what they do. Help by speaking out on issues that also go beyond ag — like economic, trade, environment. Keep farmers in mind. Help spread the word with your neighbors, friends and colleagues that U.S. food is best and most abundant in world.

n_web: Thanks a ton, Mace. Good info to share. Best wishes on a successful #AFBF10. Sorry I can’t make the big tweet-up!

AFBFMace: Thanks, Nick. It has been a pleasure. Look for a ton of tweets next week from “sunny” Seattle, as the FB family gathers. Follow #farmbureau for a direct feed of our timely information.


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