June 6, 2016

CULTIVATE CALIFORNIA: Effort Seeks To Preserve Agriculture’s Social License

It’s no secret. In an era of diminishing resources, agriculture is being asked to do more with less. However, despite the prodigious efforts of many of our members—as well as the broader industry—to innovate and conserve, we still face attacks from agenda-driven activists and pressures from misguided policymakers. These negative sentiments can spill over into the media, which, in turn, influences an impressionable public and indirectly affects our ability to farm.

Case in point. News outlets across the country have been quick to cast everything from almonds to lettuce—and, by extension, all of agriculture—as the villains of the ongoing California drought. Reporters have paid significant attention to the “water footprint” of various crops grown by farmers, some even suggesting that the state should reassess how its limited resources are allocated. What do we expect the public to believe if this is the only message they hear?

As with any issue, the steady drumbeat of half-truths surrounding agricultural water use—such as the 80 percent claim—threatens to erode the level of public acceptance of farming in the state. There is good news, however. Despite imbalances in media coverage and a robust ground game by activists, research indicates that Californians still view agriculture in a positive light. They view farmers as hard-working, honest and essential to both a healthy diet and a strong economy.

Furthermore, Californians overwhelmingly view agriculture as a worthwhile use of our limited water resources. This demonstrates that, even though the industry faces ever-expanding regulatory burdens, the public still supports the ability of farmers to operate in the state. Pollsters and other politically-minded professionals refer to this collectively-given approval as “social license.” The only question is: what level of freedom to operate will Californians continue to grant farmers in the future?

The answer is largely dependent on how effective agriculture is in responding to the attacks of environmentalists and other activist causes. Our opponents are sophisticated and pride themselves on playing the long game. They have infiltrated our government agencies, universities and newsrooms, and are content to gradually peel away the layers of public support for agriculture. They understand their best chance of success is to perpetuate a narrative that portrays farmers as profiteering abusers of land, water, air and people.

What is Western Growers doing to maintain and enhance the social license of our members? For one, it involves working with our industry partners and leveraging our collective resources. Our opponents are well-coordinated and well-funded; we should be, as well. Taking a page out of the activist playbook, WG and our allies from a cross-section of agriculture have joined forces to form Cultivate California, a statewide consumer education program. The goal of this campaign is to measurably increase positive perceptions of agricultural water use among a targeted audience (urban Californians) not traditionally engaged with the farming and ranching community.

The program is built on sound consumer market research, and uses media insights, social media analytics, paid advertising and a fact-based positive narrative to shift the conversation away from attacks about the amount of water needed to grow crops. We are focusing on the relationship people have with the foods they eat—our tagline is “Keep the state on your plate”—and the legacy and ingenuity of the California farmers who feed the world.

The campaign launched in December 2015 and has already demonstrated remarkable success. Through the use of digital display banners, nearly 12 million Californians have been reached with coalition messaging. Furthermore, these online banners have driven more than 60 percent of the traffic to our www.CultivateCalifornia.com website. Analysis of these visitors confirms we are reaching the right audience—urban Californians concerned about water conservation and natural resource preservation.

While it is still too early to measure improvements in public opinion compared to baseline data, initial online surveys have revealed immediate results. Audiences exposed to our messaging have indicated a five point increase in support of agricultural use of water resources in California.

It is clear that the Cultivate California campaign is on the right track. But much more needs to be done. WG will continue to remain engaged in this effort and encourages the participation of our members. Be sure to visit the website and follow the program on Twitter (www.twitter.com/CultivateCA) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/cultivateca). We would appreciate your help in sharing Cultivate California stories and information via your own social media channels and with your colleagues.

There are also several other ways to participate:

First, share your photos. Cultivate California relies on sharing vibrant images of California farmland, crops, products and people that help keep the state on our plate. If you are interested in providing photo assets to the program for use online and on social media, we’d love to showcase them.

Secondly, become a “Cultivator.” The drought has presented unique challenges for each of us, but offers an opportunity to tell a powerful story about the investments in innovation being made on California farms. We invite you to share your own story by being featured on the Cultivate California webpage.

Check out our Cultivators at www.CultivateCalifornia.com/cultivators.

Participation in Cultivate California is one of many efforts WG is undertaking to preserve and expand the freedom of our members to operate. As the forces that shape public opinion and policy continue to change, our tactics must also evolve. We must become proficient in the new forms of communication, harnessing the power of digital and social media to connect with and influence the masses. And this industry, with its incredible diversity and sense of individualism, must learn to do these things collectively. Only then will we be able to maintain our social license with the coming generations.