Kevin Folta is Professor of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida. He has been communicating on science, biotechnology and agriculture for over 20 years, encouraging farmers to join him in sharing their work.
Next week, he takes a day off to present at Land Expo 2022 to explain the lessons he’s learned the hard way.
SF: For many people working in offices or in the classroom, work has changed over the past couple of years. What is your job like these days?
KF: The biggest change has been to reach out to an online audience that chooses not to be in person for course content. It’s a challenge because I never see myself as much as a teacher as as a facilitator. I like to accompany them so that they think and discover for themselves. It’s hard when they’re not in front of you. It’s very difficult to read the play, but we still do. We’re still doing it.
SF: What about the research aspect of your job? Has it changed?
KF: The research aspect has been a challenge for a number of reasons. Especially the limited funding for exploratory research. It has been difficult to keep a lab staffed, to progress and to discover exciting discoveries. Which is a shame because that is really where my heart is.
SF: You’ve done a lot of public outreach and communication in the past as well. How did that have to change?
KF: It was a difficult change for me. In November 2019, before COVID, I was told to stop all science communication efforts. I was due to attend the Land Expo in 2020 and had to cancel due to demand from the University. It was heartbreaking for me. I also had to finish a podcast which was very successful.
Finally, I was able to negotiate to be able to do this kind of activity in my spare time. I do this as an outside job, consultation and hobby. It’s sad because it’s something that excites me, but that I can’t do in the course of my job.
This year, I will be at Land Expo while on vacation, speaking as a private citizen, not an agent for the University of Florida.
SF: The subject of your intervention at the next Land Expo is social media. This has also changed in recent years. Tell me about what you see happening there.
KF: The COVID crisis has really brought to light what social media can turn into a liability and how perceptions of any situation can be tarnished or manipulated due to immediate access to bad information that confirms reader’s bias . You are able to confirm a rumor you have heard and make it believe it is legitimate.
It has been a microcosm of what we experience in agriculture for as long as the internet has been connected. We have seen a constant assault on agriculture, agricultural technology, food and agriculture. It all started because of the Internet channel, where a few difficult voices took control of the conversation.
Farmers and scientists did not intervene. And when we’ve done it, we’ve traditionally done it badly. Now we are correcting this. Some people are doing a great job, but we need more people to be part of this conversation and to do it right.
SF: Is there a social media platform that is better or worse for fueling miscommunication and fake news?
KF: They are all guilty. This means that it is a bigger challenge for us, as we have to learn to adapt the message to each platform. It’s a problem because the bad guys have experts with full-time jobs to disown what we’re doing in farming and farming. This means that we all have to invest a few minutes every now and then to match that effort. It’s about mobilizing people who are pro-agriculture and involving them in the conversations.
SF: What’s the first step to get started?
KF: The first step is to share the information that you find interesting with your audience and your networks. It’s very simple. You find believable voices and share what they produce. Share great podcasts. Share great stories. Share great videos. It takes five minutes a week to amplify good messages from others.
SF: How do people make the amplification of what they find convincing more powerful than rumors or untruths that others find convincing?
KF: I have some advice here. First of all, don’t turn off your potential audience. Being angry or bitter with others who disagree with you will. Disgust weighs heavily. People push away people who react in an offensive way.
Give people the farm hug. In a noisy room with insults, the person reaching out with kindness really stands out.
SF: Agriculture is so personal to our readers, so the misinformation can be really upsetting. How do you calm down so that you can reach out with kindness?
KF: You must realize that you are on the side of the angels here. The only thing another angry voice in the internet cesspool is doing is alienating the people you need to capture. Starting with ‘help me understand’, listening to others and understanding how they got there helps you formulate a better, empathetic and defused response. It’s appealing to anyone watching.
SF: You mentioned that there are people who do this well, that we just need more. Who is an example?
KF: Look at the millennial farmer. He’s a corn and soybean farmer from Minnesota doing fantastic media and YouTube. To some farmers it might sound boring, but for the average person who doesn’t know anything about food and farming, its contents are extremely valuable.
You have to consider that people want to know what you do as a farmer, or someone involved in farming at some level. They want to know what you are doing. They want to know where their food comes from. Show them what you are doing. That kind of transparency, even if you think it’s unnecessary, it’s something they want.
SF: Some of our readers don’t want to be the person in front of a camera or a microphone. How can they support farmers who are?
KF: There are two ways to participate. The first way is the preparation of the content. That is, podcasts, writing, video, blogging. Use whatever emerging media people use and where people go to get information.
If you don’t want to create content, amplify other people’s content. We come back to the idea of finding good media and sharing them within your networks. If all the farmers and people associated with agriculture, 1.5% of the country, amplified the messages of their advocates, we would have a much better perception in the eyes of the public.
SF: Do you have any words for the people creating content when things get daunting or activists attack?
KF: You can’t stop. You have to do the right thing, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much it can change your life, no matter how much it can change your plans. Certainly my personal and professional life has changed, and not always for the better, but it is the right thing to do.
At the end of the day, when my head hits the pillow, I know I got up and fought for the most important thing. The satisfaction of that is what you will need to feed on. Otherwise, if you dwell on the negative, it can be overwhelming.
SF: What can readers who listen to your talk at Land Expo expect?
KF: By nature, farmers and scientists believe that the way to solve a problem is to bury it in information, facts and logic. It doesn’t work in a world driven by emotion and sensationalism. We need to move the conversations forward in different ways. I explored this with boots on the ground activity for 20 years. I see all the mistakes I made.
At Land Expo you will hear about all the mistakes I made and how I learned to be more efficient. I’m going to give you some strategies you can adopt so that we can all work together to improve the perception of agriculture.
SF: What do you want to share with our readers before Land Expo?
KF: In agriculture, there are too many things that we cannot control – the weather, international pressures, prices. It’s something we can control, and we don’t. At least not enough. It is something that we can control and that I would like all farmers to be more comfortable doing. We are a tiny part of the population, but a really large population. It is important that the voice of agriculture is heard by legitimate sources.