John C. (Jack) Fisher, Ohio Farm Bureau executive vice president

Alien Encounter

I never read John Gray’s book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, but I get what he’s saying.

His premise is that men and women communicate so differently that they seem to be speaking in alien languages. He also contends that with time and effort, they get to where they understand one another. I’m living proof. When Judy and I were first married, she would say “It’s cold in the house,” and I would say, “Yep.” Now, I get her a blanket.

Reading between the lines is a pretty handy skill on the home front, and after 41 years of marriage, I think Judy will say I’m making progress. Where I really need help is at work. That’s why it would be great if Gray wrote a sequel: Farmers are from Mars, Consumers are from Venus.

I’m full-blooded Martian – grew up on a farm, got a degree in agriculture and worked with and for farmers my entire career. Which leads to my problem: Farm Bureau’s mission is to forge a partnership between farmers and consumers. I can’t do much forging until I’ve gotten better at conversing with Venusians.

We do speak different languages, you know. Take, for example, the word “organic.” A consumer is likely to think about hand-grown, natural, high quality food. A farmer probably contemplates labor costs, pest control and preserving taste and freshness. Buyer and seller share a passion for the product, but that’s not enough. Without knowledge about production realities, a consumer might ask for the impossible. Without understanding a consumer’s wishes, a farmer might fall short of expectations. That’s when worlds collide.

From the farm perspective, this is hardly a new concept. Farm Bureau invests a lot of resources into telling agriculture’s story. I think we’re pretty good at talking to consumers. I also think that’s not enough. We need to become better listeners.

We could start with a vocabulary lesson. I have a lot of friends, outside of farm circles, who use words like “slow food,” “free-range,” “sustainable” or “local.” They speak of GMOs and factory farmers. They discuss hormones and pesticides, humane care and livestock cages. Similar terminology fills opinion pages, talk shows and the blogosphere. It’s abundantly clear: Food and food production have been elevated in the public consciousness. What’s strange is that as a guy who’s been in agriculture my entire life, I hear what everyone’s saying, but I’m not sure I know what they mean.

I’m determined to get better, and I hope you’ll help. You talk, I’ll listen. Tell me what worries you about your food. Explain why you’re nervous about certain kinds of farming practices. Define the buzz words that are a part of the food conversation. Share what you appreciate about the families who feed you and the products they provide. You can start our dialogue by sending me an e-mail at [email protected]. I promise I’ll read every one of them, and I’ll pay attention to what you tell me.

It’s likely our conversation will be a little awkward at first. We’ll have widely different perspectives on subjects both practical and emotional. I won’t be bashful about sharing my beliefs but I’ll be respectful of yours. And if I miss your point, say it again. Remember, we come from different worlds. Judy can tell you, sometimes it takes awhile for things to sink in, but I’ll get it. Eventually.