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Risk communications can be positive

Growers learn to put questioning minds at ease.


November 15, 2007
By Peter Darbishire

30aThe adage that you must be seen to do the right thing as well as doing the
right thing has been joined in modern agriculture by a third requirement: you
are expected to be able to express yourself as well!

In terms of potato production practices and how they impact the environment,
this third phase is already well understood by a growing group of producers
in Prince Edward Island.

A year ago, attendees of a workshop hosted by Bayer CropScience learned how
to improve their communication skills. The 'Speak Up' training sessions, which
were repeated this February, enabled many of the participants to handle tough
questions and conduct themselves in discussions about their methods, leaving
a positive message with those they were in contact with.

Alvin Keenan who, with his brother Ray, produces potatoes at Souris, Prince
Edward Island, was at the January 2004 workshop. "It helped us understand
how to get a balance: addressing the fear a person might have in a calm, factual
and accurate way," he says.

Often, he says, an interviewer starts off with controversy in mind because
that sells air-time. "The workshop taught us how to use appropriate body
language and this works in an interview or when someone else approaches you,"
he adds. This is a situation he and the employees who operate the Keenan's equipment
are occasionally faced with. It is important, he says, "To make sure employees
in a commercial family operation can handle situations like when a rural resident
comes into the field to see what it is you are doing or meets your machinery
on the road. The worst thing you can say is 'no comment'." Many of these
people are well educated, but do not know much about modern agriculture, notes
Keenan.

Sometimes they have a real fear about what is being done. "The first thing
you have to do is pacify them because it's usually an unwarranted fear. We can
tell them we are using 'crop protection products', not 'pesticides', we can
explain what regulations are and how we respect things like wind-speed limits
when we spray and what this means to their safety and our impact on the environment,
as well as showing that we are not violating the 'laws of the land'."

Mary Kay Sonier, communications specialist with the Prince Edward Island Potato
Board, is keen to see these skills developed by growers. "They are the
ones on the front lines with agricultural chemical use: they see the benefits
and know the risks and financial uncertainty they would face without these products.
They are also the ones most at risk because they are handling the product. They
are also in a good position to explain the changes that have taken place over
the years, from packaging and formulation to storage requirements. They can
also explain the training and certification they now require before applying
chemicals and the factors that are taken into consideration prior to spraying,
such as wind-speed and location of nearby waterways. It is also very important
because from surveys we have seen, farmers are very credible sources of information
and enjoy a high level of trust with consumers," she says.

As far as the workshop itself, Sonier says instructors led participants through
many scenarios. "It made many points about messages, how to say things
and communication pitfalls to avoid that are not things that people 'just know'.
They are things one has to learn and be made aware of. There were also many
practical exercises employing situations that have taken place on Prince Edward
Island in the past and these meant that the whole exercise was not just hypothetical,"
she adds.

She says there has been an improvement in grower confidence, particularly among
those growers who are involved in positions such as being a board director or
an industry representative in another organization. "I think growers are
more comfortable and confident because a consistent message has been going out
for some time now, highlighting all the good things growers are doing to minimize
any negative impact on the environment.

"The 'Speak Up' program fits well with communication efforts for programs
such as the Environmental Farm Plan, which has enjoyed very good participation
in Prince Edward Island. The Prince Edward Island Potato Board is constantly
working to get the message out to consumers about all the positive things growers
are doing for the environment, as well as the positive message about the healthy
attributes of our product: potatoes," says Sonier.

Keenan is a proponent of improving communication skills and he seems to almost
relish the opportunity to sway someone's negative view of agriculture to one
that is more positive. He notes: "As Dolly Parson once said, if you want
to see the rainbow you have to put up with the rain." Agriculture has an
impact, it is everyone's responsibility to make sure it is not a negative one.
Now he and his colleagues can speak about this with authority. -30-