Reframing the Narrative: How We Bridge the Knowledge Gap About Local Food and Farming Systems

Reframing the Narrative: How We Bridge the Knowledge Gap About Local Food and Farming Systems

How Red Tomato and Farming and Food Narrative Project Are Customizing Research and Tools for On-Farm Use

When it comes to food and farming practices in the U.S., most folks outside the farming community have very little knowledge of the complex challenges facing local farmers or the language used to describe farming practices. The messages we receive tend to be oversimplified or highly polarizing. The on-farm reality is that there are many factors that farmers must consider as they make decisions every season, factors most of the general public have never been introduced to or considered. Bridging this education gap will require us to reframe the conversation in ways that are more productive, and more understandable to those outside agriculture.

To understand how to reframe the conversation and find the best ways to connect eaters to on-farm realities, Red Tomato launched the Farming and Food Narrative Project (FFNP) in partnership with IPM Voice, a national advocacy organization whose mission is to make integrated pest management (IPM) intelligible and valuable to the public, and the FrameWorks Institute, an independent research organization comprised of Ph.D.-level social scientists whose primary work is to translate the views of scientists to the public. The Farming and Food Narrative Project’s primary focus is to develop a more effective approach to talking to the public about farming and farm practices, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and to create communications strategies that are evidence-based. These recommendations on how to reframe communications around local food and agriculture will ultimately be shared with farmers, agricultural scientists, and other agricultural practitioners and communicators in order to equip these voices to lead a more productive public conversation.

The ongoing research project with Red Tomato is in its sixth year. We caught up with Kelsey Gosch, Red Tomato’s Development Associate and FFNP Project Coordinator, who is currently doing interviews and orchard visits as part of a SARE research grant to help Red Tomato understand how producers are talking about their growing practices. She shared what the research has unearthed about the communication challenges our Northeast farmers are facing and offers a glimpse of how the Farming and Food Narrative Project is working to custom-fit its tools to best suit farmers’ communication needs.

Image by Adam DeTour

Red Tomato: What are the goals of this part of the research program with Red Tomato and the FFNP?

Kelsey Gosch: This work is funded by a Northeast SARE grant as a sub-project underneath the Farming and Food Narrative Project. There is a gap in understanding around agriculture, between what the public thinks agriculture is and what it should be versus what practitioners actually experience. Between the practitioners and the public, there’s a disparity in what people think agriculture really looks like in the U.S. 

We partnered with FrameWorks to perform evidence-based research about what those misunderstandings are, and they are coming up with tools and trainings to bridge that communications gap. This is not a silver-bullet marketing initiative; this is real, lasting, change that’s going to impact the long-term mental models that people have about U.S. agriculture.

All of the Eco-Certified growers we’re working with as a part of this project have direct communication with the public on their farms, from U-pick operations and farmstands to hayrides and school field trips. We’re collecting information about how they currently communicate their practices with people who come to the farm. We want to learn how they are describing the Eco practices they follow to maintain a healthy ecosystem and gauge how that description is received or understood by the visitors, the public. We’re planning to take the tools and templates we are getting from the research with FrameWorks and custom-fit them to the communications challenges our growers have with the public. Everyone has their own unique communication challenges, although we’re seeing a lot of similarities between each farm. We just completed our baseline on-farm data collection, and this project is intended to result in the first real dissemination of the research-based FrameWorks tools.

RT: What’s the main communication gap identified by your time on the Eco-Certified farms?

Gosch: The first question, by and large, people ask is, “Do you grow organic?” or “Do you spray?” Pesticides generate a lot of fear, but what is the best way to talk about the reality of the growing practices without getting too scientific? We’re trying to communicate the contexts that all growers work in when they make decisions, such as the contexts of growing fruit in the Northeast versus on the West Coast. At what point in the communications plan is it best to get that message across? 

Some visitors care a lot about the farming practices and some don’t really care; some people just want the local farm experience and to support a local grower. So it complicates the communication to plan for the various levels of engagement. When people are coming onto the farm, how do you engage them and talk about this, even if it is answering a question they might not be asking and in a way that doesn’t set up an over-complicated conversation.

This project opens a unique opportunity to communicate with the public. These people are already on the farm, they want to have the local experience, and they want to engage with something natural like picking an apple from a tree or looking at the produce just picked that morning, beautifully assembled on the table.

Image by Adam DeTour

RT: What else was unexpected that you found across the farms? 

Gosch: A further complication is that the farmers with the most knowledge of the growing practices might be the least likely to interact with the public. Growers have different people on their farms and operations answering the organic and spray questions; some are better equipped than others to give a satisfactory answer to customers. While some of the workers are consistent season-to-season, the customers could interact with seasonal workers, high school students, or older folks in retirement who want to spend time at the local farm, all of whom have vastly varying knowledge about the farm practices at the level needed to do this strategic communication. 

RT: What is a key takeaway you’ll be considering as you customize the tools for the farmers to use on-farm?

Gosch: Once people have made a decision to be on-farm, it really opens up a window to listen and trust the farm staff these visitors might be talking to, hopefully, because they made the choice to come. What’s the best way to communicate the message with the hope that the customers then spread the message?

We’re trying to perpetuate the message that growers are making decisions within the confines of a lot of situations, whether it’s weather, climate, labor issues, and so on. There are a lot of factors driving grower choices, and the message you share on that is going to travel. The FrameWorks toolkit is testing for “stickiness” in the metaphors and examples they are creating to have the kind of traction to take them further and build word-of-mouth buy-in.

Ultimately, Red Tomato’s goal is for the public to better understand the hard work and complex choices that are required of local farmers, and to appreciate the many ways these farms benefit their communities, both in delicious fruit and in stewardship of the land, water, and wildlife.  If people share that understanding and appreciation with their friends and neighbors, that becomes a strong support system for keeping these farms thriving in our region.

Next Steps for Red Tomato 

The next phase of this project is to develop training and tools based on the FFNP recommendations. That work will then be provided to farmers in our network, and our team will return to the farms next year to measure how communications have been impacted. 

To continue learning more about the Farming and Food Narrative Project, be sure to check out these resources! 

 Top image by Adam DeTour