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Lessons from the (corn) field

How working with farmers made me a better science communicator

By: Maggie Beetstra,
Knauss Fellow,
Science Education and Policy Fellow,
NOAA Office of Education


It was the fall of 2017, and I was having what would be the first of many conversations with a farmer as part of my social science research. It also turned out to be the first of many lessons I would learn from them. I jumped right into my planned spiel about the efficacy of conservation practices, but things didn’t go as planned. As we were talking, the farmer’s comments became progressively shorter and tenser. He eventually stopped me. Although he thought I was a fine person, he said, I clearly didn’t know anything about his way of life, so he didn’t want to talk to me. 


My attempt at communicating with him had failed, all because I hadn’t connected with him. In the remainder of my training as a social scientist in the Midwest, I spent hours and hours having conversations with farmers, visiting their farms, meeting their families, and trying to understand how they make conservation decisions. Many times, these conversations turned to politically charged topics like climate change. Through lots of practice and some hard lessons learned, I found a few strategies that have resulted in productive, civil conversations about complex scientific topics that did not compromise scientific integrity or leave either of us feeling emotionally drained — or have someone ask me to leave their farm, for that matter. 


Now, as a Knauss fellow, I’ve traded the corn and soybean fields for community resilience and marine education, but the same approaches still hold true. Here are some of the lessons I learned in science communication while out in the fields.


1. Go beyond “know your audience” —  find common ground. 

When talking to anyone about science, it’s certainly important to understand their priorities and motivations. Knowing your audience is critical. However, beyond that, I’ve learned that finding common ground with your audience can make or break the interaction for anyone.


That farmer I mentioned earlier? It turns out that I actually had a lot in common with him. My family has raised cows and farmed corn, wheat and alfalfa in the same area since the 1920s. I grew up visiting my grandparents’ dairy farm and spending time in the barn with the calves and hoards of barn cats. I had failed to talk about my own family’s farming background or establish any kind of commonality between our lives to create trust. I had to share a little about myself in order to make the farmer comfortable enough to talk with me.


Now, whenever I talk to someone about my field of science, I try to establish common ground immediately rather than jumping straight into the science. Have we lived in or visited the same place? Do we have the same favorite sports team? Is there something we can agree on as a starting point? A little bit of connection can go a long way, and I’ve never had a farmer shut down a conversation if I make an effort to establish commonalities.


2. Be respectful.

No matter who you’re speaking to, the landscape of communicating science has become even more challenging thanks to easily accessible media sources that support almost any belief. Channeling frustration from those conversations without becoming defensive or condescending takes practice. When someone feels their beliefs are under attack, they can become even more entrenched. If we are trying to increase understanding, it is important to communicate in a respectful manner and understand why someone may have differing beliefs from your own. I learned this the hard way when talking to a farmer about climate change. He asked me if I believed in global warming, and I answered by explaining the greenhouse effect. At that moment, I thought I was explaining it using general terms, and maybe I was. But I shouldn’t have assumed he didn’t understand the greenhouse effect and, in addition, explaining the greenhouse effect to someone who is unsure about the human contribution to climate change was not the right approach. 


Rather than getting wrapped up in contentious terminology like “climate change” or “global warming”, I now focus on environmental actions related to climate change. I mention things we all value — protecting water, air and other natural resources for future generations. Even though this does not encapsulate all of climate change, my conversations that take this approach are more cordial and have resulted in less frustration all around. And most importantly, we are able to have a true conversation about a contentious science topic.


3. Make it a true conversation.


Talking at someone about science is very different from having a conversation with them about science. We as scientists always have something to learn from those we communicate with. I have learned more from conversations with farmers than I have in many of the classes I took in graduate school. Farmers have an abundance of knowledge that I will never possess, and it is critical to recognize the importance of that knowledge. 


Like with any conversation between people who are learning from each other, we do not have to have all of the answers nor should we be afraid to ask questions. Why does a farmer do something in a particular way on their farm? Where do they get information that informs conservation decision-making? What are they interested in learning about? I once asked a farmer why a particular conservation practice would not work on their farm. They thought that the topography of their land was not suitable for the practice, but in actuality, the practice would help solve some of their erosion issues. The farmer tried the practice and had incredibly positive results. Likewise, farmers explaining the unique barriers they face that prevent adoption of conservation practices, like an overbearing landlord or having few channels to sell their agricultural goods in the centralized food system, have completely transformed my perception of them and their actions. Asking questions and having a two-way conversation acknowledges that others have something to teach us and provides us with a clearer starting point to build on with our science.


Already in my Knauss fellowship year, I’ve had the opportunity to continue communicating science with all different audiences. I’m working on an activity book for kids and youth that translates NOAA’s Community Resilience Education Theory of Change into a more digestible format. I will co-create this with teens so that I can establish common ground, avoid overly complex explanations and have two-way conversations about science with the target audience of the materials. I’m also helping to design a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History that is all about communicating science to broader audiences. The Smithsonian team knows their audience well, so in our exhibit meetings, we have conversations about how to get museum visitors interested and engaged in the exhibit and what we would like them to take away from the experience.


Even though no one has recently asked me if I believe in global warming, what I learned from difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with farmers has helped me to become a better communicator and a better listener, traits that will help me during my Knauss fellowship year and in my career afterward.


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