Farm Food Facts

USFRA CEO Erin Fitzgerald on How U.S. Agriculture is Creating a Movement, Not a Moment

October 05, 2020 USFRA Episode 94
Farm Food Facts
USFRA CEO Erin Fitzgerald on How U.S. Agriculture is Creating a Movement, Not a Moment
Show Notes Transcript

Today we talk with US Farmers and Ranchers in action CEO, Erin Fitzgerald, about the Honor The Harvest event and the values that will shape Agriculture for the next 10 years.

Phil:

US farmers and ranchers i n action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 Honor the Harvest f orum. Welcome to the U S Farmers and Ranchers i n a ction, weekly video podcast for October 7th. I'm your host, Phil Lempert. Very special g uest today. Erin Fitzgerald, our CEO of U S Farmers and Ranchers i n action. And we're going to talk today about Honor the Harvest. We're going to talk about probably one of the most important initiatives ever taken on by farmers, ranchers, agriculture. U m, Erin, welcome to Farm Food Facts.

Erin:

Welcome Phil. Great to be back here. You've had a lot of great guests last couple of weeks.

Phil:

Yeah, we have. And most of them h ave been i n honor of the harvest. And, u h, I want to just give you my impression being both at the first honor o f the harvest, u m, on, o n the farm, u m, with 200 of our country's leaders, if you would, and then doing it virtually, u m, over the six day period, u h, just a couple o f weeks ago, what, what m ight t ake a way is, and, you know, I know nobody wants to hear this. I actually l iked the virtual better. I got to meet more different people. I think that when you're in, u m, in a barn with 200 people, you know, you're sitting at a table, you t alk to the people at your table, you wave to the people, you know, your friends, u m, you know, maybe meet some new people at dinner and so on, but kudos o f for the whole USFRA team who put this together. U m, I thought it was fabulous and I really thought that a lot of the interaction was even better than at the first one.

Erin:

You know, it's so funny. Um, you know, 90 days as , you know, being on the advisory council, we were questioning if we could move the event to September and have it in iOS still , um, and be in a farm. Um, and of course, you know , little did we know Corona would hit and then the Derecho. So even where we would be having the event would have been kind of precarious, you know, to house. And I think that the digitally bent , you know, one, it allowed for multiple breakouts and that paired leadership, which we always do, but we were able to do through zoom, a series of , um, still engagement and, and , and share that each person had many groups to have little conversations. And I think because we've all been in the zoom boom box for so long, everybody was kind of thinking, how are you going to pull this off? Um, but we were still able to make it a high engagement leadership event. And I think that, that , um, towards the end of the form , as , you know, people got very emotional, I think largely because it was the first zoom experience that you were able to have that was really familial , uh , and really related to people based rather than just information base .

Phil:

So let me, let me start at the beginning. Why is honor the so important and what is it all about?

Erin:

Yeah, well, fundamentally, you know , um, over the last decade, we've seen a lot of great efforts in sustainability, a lot of different , uh , groups that are focused on it. And we felt fundamentally that while there has been amazing sustainability practitioners and organizations and , um, different efforts going on, that we fundamentally lack of leadership forum , uh , to really bring the best and brightest together and get an integrated strategy and plan. And, you know , um, without a common vision, a common lexicon, a common roadmap for how we're all gonna work together. We felt that that was a big missing hole . And in particular, as we thought about 2020, this is pre COVID. We kept seeing that there was this increasing need for leaders in action action. As we, especially as we moved into the decade of action on climate change and the sustainable development goals, we felt that we really needed to accelerate and bring these leaders together and really answer the call of leadership. And I would say 2020 ended up being that year even more. So, I mean, as you know, Phil during COVID, we were trying to help leaders meet the moment. And, you know, our advisory council said, you know, now more than ever, we need to lean in, and there's never been a greater time for this moment. And we were saying that last year, and this year 2020 really became that year to lean in.

Phil:

And I also think, you know, in , in doing a lot of the interviews here on farm food facts and a lot of the farmers and ranchers , um, one of the things that I think it's important that we take the lead on and that we put on our shoulders is frankly letting people know whether it be retailers, whether it be consumers , uh, anybody across the supply chain, just how good farmers or managers are doing as it relates to sustainability. I mean, the stories that that are, you know, in our archives are fabulous ones. And every farmer that I talked to, you know, they say we're doing all this great stuff and nobody knows about it. So to underscore your point that we need this leadership, that we need this common voice to get out there. Um , I think it, I think it's critical and, you know, I also applaud you and , and all the board , uh, for putting together, you know, the vision principles . Um, and I'd love to go through, you know, each of those and talk a bit about why it's so important. And the first point is exactly what we're talking about, collaboration, how are we going to collaborate better?

Erin:

Yeah. You know, I think that , um, particularly during COVID that value really got reinforced. Um, you know, we saw , um, many of the food sector and retailers making business decisions that immediately was having impact on the farm gate. We saw farmers that wanted to connect and , um, better engage and predict with the retailers and value chain. Um, and then we saw feeding America as well, needing a lot of resources and support all up and down the value chain. And I think in many respects, COVID was a fire drill, a test of what it means to really collaborate and, you know, fundamentally sustainability might as well just substitute the word for super complex. And if we're not all figuring this out and working on it together, then what is , what are we doing? You know, so this requires , um, you know , used to say contagious collaboration. And that was my big buzzword last year. Of course, I'm not using that anymore this year, but it does require a level of , um , collaboration that's unprecedented. And I think what we're trying to do is create a call to arms , um, that we have to work together. We have to learn and lift up the best.

Phil:

One of, one of the stories that I loved hearing , um, on an interview that we did a couple of weeks ago was from a farmer , um, who obviously talked to other farmers, but because of COVID-19 , um, the, the farmer network expanded , um, and he described it as, you know, he used to talk to six or seven other farmers, you know, in his local area. Now he's talking to scores of other farmers throughout the entire country , uh, to be able to share ideas, to share challenges, to , to really help each other. And that's one of the great things that , that came out of , uh, came out of this mess , um , as, as well. Um, another vision principle is leadership. We talked a little bit about that , uh , but talk a little bit more about, what's the kind of leadership that we really need, whether it's at the government level, the farm level , um, the association level, the NGO level, how do we pull together all this leadership?

Erin:

Yeah, I think leadership is, is fundamental in this quest. So leadership really requires saying where you need to go. And then the second is followership, right? And when it comes to the , the idea of the decade of ag, we felt it was strong. It was very important to really align on that common vision, because if we're all leaders, we have to step up and step out and give more onto ourselves and just be only your own organization, but have to give more to the common cause of the common vision , um, to make 20, 20 a reality. And so we're saying you have to, this requires bold leadership, not just any leadership of bold leadership, and we're asking leaders to really step up and step out towards that vision.

Phil:

So my favorite , um, value, if you would , um, of the list is, is the next one, which is appreciation , um, and that's appreciation of the land of each other , uh, the communities. Um, tell us, tell us more about how that made list

Erin:

Well, appreciation is a really interesting word choice as well. Um , that was specifically designed as you know, by the different stakeholders and appreciate means to recognize, to look , um, with openness and to lift up and appreciate in value a strength. And that really comes from a technique that we used through appreciative inquiry, which is to really celebrate the diversity and the strengths of the system. And so appreciation is also , um, really indicative of diversity and inclusion , um, as well as respecting the differences that exist in all of our farms, the differences that exist within all the different value chains and also where you are in your own leadership or your own arc of the story, if you will. And , um , so it's just appreciating , um , where we are in this current situation and then lifting up in value or strength. So it's basically , um , if you've watched 30 harvest , it's kind of built on this X-Men theory , um, that everybody has these hidden talents and we should appreciate those talents and lifted up to it .

Phil:

And clearly over, over the six days that honor the harvest virtual , uh , took place. I saw that I saw the appreciation in every meeting , uh , that I was in , uh, whether it was the one on one meetings or small group meetings or the larger meetings. Um, really, and , and maybe because of COVID-19, but everybody's voice was heard, everybody's voice was built on, was discussed. I mean, I've been, as you have in meetings, you know, industry meetings for decades and, you know, somebody pipes up with an idea and somebody else says that , nah , lousy idea, you know, move on, move on. And we still have none of that. Um, and , and it was really even if an idea wasn't perfect. Um, some, somebody else, whether it was a farmer, whether it was an NGO, whether it was an investment banker, you know, would build on it and hone it so that the group really could , um, be empowered and own it. Um, the next value. And it's also an interesting word it's ingenuity. Um, and you know, in most cases today, I think that people wouldn't say ingenuity, they would say innovation , um, why ingenuity?

Erin:

Yeah. Ingenuity. That was so funny. Cause you know, all of these birds were carefully chosen by so many stakeholders and it was at one time I think innovation early on, but ingenuity was about creating the spirit , uh, and the , um , place for , um , lifelong learning, creating the culture around innovation and also inspiring , um, new, new innovation or ingenuity from places other than the food and ag sector. So we have a lot, for example, we can learn from the renewable energy sector, we have a lot, we can learn from the healthcare sector and others, and really look at how we can infuse , um , a mindset and create a culture of innovation towards that decade of ag challenge.

Phil:

So we hear a lot about, you know, farmers and ranchers being the stewards of the land. And that's, you know, the next principle, which is stewardship, but what is stewardship actually mean?

Erin:

I love this because , um, I've been working on sustainability for quite some time. Uh , and when I first started working on sustainability, it was definitely a corporate social responsibility mindset. You saw many companies , um , back in 2007, taking on this. And I remember going out to visit a farmer and he walked out and showed me the deed to his family farm had been in the generation for five generations. And he said, is this what sustainability means? And I went, okay, you know, how do we adapt the language of sustainability? And then I was , um, got to go to the UN several times. And I saw that there's these sustainability goals and we all set goals. But the question I have is what makes a person get to the goals. One to take action on goals. And that starts from a deeper innate place of stewardship. And those are the values and the commitment to really want to leave this world better for the next generation, want to leave our land better for the next generation and sustainability that is putting your values into action, making the tough business model line up day in and day out, no matter how tough it is for the community and the planet. And so we will always speak to the journey towards sustainability goals as both stewardship and sustainability. It has to first start from a , from a deeper place. And I think culturally, we have a community, both. If you look at farming and food makers that we have been doing that for generations, we have, we are committed. We love food. We love giving service to our communities to provide food, and we need to tap into that deeper innate sense of purpose to really make the goals come alive.

Phil:

I love that you've combined , um, the, the heart and the head together with, with this , uh, that that both have to be involved with stewardship and , uh , you know, we should have a contest we should see who can show us the deed that goes back the most number of generations, and then hang it in the USF RA office. Copy of it. Wouldn't that be cool. I wonder who I would love that I would love that. So , um, the last principle , especially , um, as we've discovered with COVID-19 , um, is , um, evidence-based that we just can't be , um , out there, you know, talking a good game that we have to have evidence, we have to have science, we have to have reporting on it. Um, and, and I guess, what do we then do with that information once we have this good evidence based information and these learnings, how do we share it?

Erin:

Yeah. This one actually came up , um , as you know, part of day one through day six. Um, and I think largely similar to the diversity question, you know, we're seeing in the science world as well , um, science versus emotive based conversations, particularly as it relates to COVID, as it relates to vaccines and a series of other conversations. And you can say also GMOs and climate change, right. Um, I often am in two different conversations where one group will say, you know, GMOs aren't scientifically backed, but they believe in climate change. I I'm in another room where they believe in the science of climate change, but they don't believe in the science of GMOs. You know, and, and often we do attribute emotions , uh, with science. And I think what this is saying is search for the answers and make certain that we are doing the due diligence of science. And in particular, it's very important for agriculture because as we look at the next decade, for example, we are just finding out the amazing ness of soil what's underneath our ground. In fact, we know more about the surface of moon and the contribution than we do know about our soils and it , to me, it is the untapped frontier. So oftentimes in conversations, when I hear stakeholders, they're like, well, it's not this. And it's not that I'm like, well, it's important to know what we don't know, just as important as what we do know. So if we have a question that is a point of inquiry, let's go figure it out. Let's go do this science to , to make it possible. Um, rather than just saying, it's not an option. Um, so, you know, when I think about the next decade in particular , um, we have incredible , uh , frontier , uh, if we imagine climate change really happening. And I, I do think as we've seen the last three years , um, this sector is going to have to have unprecedented science to meet the changing , changing , uh , and dynamic conditions of episodic and extreme weather events. Uh, the ability to grow food , um , in those , those biological conditions is , is a frontier unknown. And so the purpose of the science say like, let's get going. We need unprecedented science, we need unprecedented data and we gotta get that in our hands of our farmers. Um , so it's really a call to arms on science

Phil:

Innovation . So we started this discussion with me sharing , um, my biggest learning from this year's honorable harvest, which was meeting a lot of new people , um , hearing from a lot of experts. You know, you you've talked about climate change and , um, I forgot the expert. And in fact it could have even been Tom Vilsack , um , who shared that one of the biggest problems because of climate change , um , is going to be the possibility probability that we're going to have more pandemics , um, as a result. So to your earlier point, this was the test. Um, and , and we've passed , we've learned a lot from this test , um, and, and more great things are gonna happen as a result on a personal level. What was the biggest takeaway for you? Um, leading the effort , uh , from this year's honor, the harvest,

Erin:

You know , I really appreciated the diversity in the room , um, of all different perspectives. I love to hear all the different viewpoints and just to feel that they had a safe space to have a conversation about stretching. And then the last day for me , um, I think was the most important to see the vision get realized. Um, you know, last year we had asked, can we create a common vision? And , and I , I was really afraid during Kobe that we would be, we'd all focus on the moment and not the longterm and not really leaning in. And so for me, even every day, I was just hanging on like, let's, I hope we can get this vision agreed upon so that we can get momentum and sign-on, and the fact that he came away with that vision and really strengthened it over the next six days, and it came alive , um, and just watching individual leaders , um , accept the leadership challenge , um, the commitment to step up. Well, you know, there was a lot of emotions on day six. I think we saw a couple of people getting teary eyed, probably myself included , um, because this is , uh , a moment. It really is a moment to really think about 2020, this all this year happened for a reason and, and how we could have been another year, we'll look back at 2020 and be like, that is how the decade of ad got launched. Um, and we need to make certain that, you know, it doesn't stop here. I think one of the things , um , that I always say when people use the word conference, I'm like this wasn't a conference, you know, those many conferences, this is a leadership moment in time where we saw leaders really step in and lean in and what's coming out of it , uh , over the next six months and year and decades .

Phil:

It's what matters most. And Erin , thank you for your leadership. Thank you for bringing honor the harvest to fruition. Um, and thank you for leading , um, agriculture and , uh , thank you for being on farm food facts.

Erin:

Well, it was an amazing group effort as you know, an amazing team and facilitators and just advisory council and all the sponsors and all the participants really hung in there, you know, and they contributed to this. So it's definitely a team effort. So everyone was working very hard and we'll look forward to getting back with ya Phil on, on the vision commitment.

Phil:

Absolutely. Thanks so much.

Erin:

Thank you.

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 honor. The harvest form or movement sponsors, United soybean board and national pork board. Our presenting sponsors, Wells Fargo and Cargil. Our gold sponsors, Bayer, Dairy West, Nebraska soybean board, McDonald's, Nutrien and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Our bronze sponsors, Purina and Ernst & Young, our youth sponsor Ruan and our donor sponsor Tyson. For more on all things, food and agriculture. Please visit [email protected] Also be sure to look out for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers and on Twitter at USFRA until next time.