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Farmers: A surprise showing at South by Southwest Festival

Will Gilmer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2017
Will Gilmer and Corby Werth

One of the most beneficial outreach strategies we can do as a dairy industry is to put ourselves into situations where people aren’t expecting us to be.

I recently joined eight other dairy farmers at South by Southwest (SXSW), a 10-day festival that overtakes Austin, Texas, every year. Many people know SXSW for its music and movie components, but its interactive portion has earned a reputation as a breeding ground for new technologies.

SXSW Interactive gives people a peek into the technological future. The technologies on display were truly amazing and stretch the imagination. I took in everything through my dairy lens so I could imagine the possibilities for us, such as virtual reality technology enhancing our storytelling capabilities.

Think about how this can be used to share our day-to-day farm story. Not every farmer is able to host a farm tour, but virtual reality would make it possible to bring the farm to new places, including classrooms.

But our industry was at SXSW with a broader purpose, which was to share our story with people who don’t know us and certainly weren’t expecting to encounter folks who milk cows for a living. More than once, I heard, “You’re a dairy farmer? What are you doing here?” And that was exactly the entry we needed to share our story.

We know what technology means to our farms, from the way we grow and harvest crops, to how we house and milk our cows, to how our product is shipped, processed and packaged. We have a fantastic story of how technology allows us to safely and effectively feed Americans every day.

But for too long, it’s been a story we have kept to ourselves, and it has caused people to have unwarranted concerns about the role technology plays in food production.

So that’s why it’s critical the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy – a company we founded through our checkoff that serves as a forum for the industry to work together – continues to move dairy into unexpected places such as SXSW.

The Innovation Center hosted a SXSW panel discussion titled “We Love Technology … Why Not When it Comes to Food?” that featured Indiana dairy farmer Sue McCloskey representing us. The goal was to discuss the intersection of food, technology and consumer trust, not always the easiest subject to navigate.

Sue McCloskey

Like the title suggested, I’ve always found it kind of ironic that people embrace technological advancements in every other aspect of their lives, but they want to turn back the clock when it comes to producing food.

Sue did a great job explaining why technology is vital to farmers and critical to feeding a growing U.S. and world population. She also pointed out how our tools allow us to do more with less and, as a result, we can ensure food security for Americans despite only 2 percent of us rising each morning to produce that food.

Through Sue’s insights and the conversations all of us dairy farmer attendees had at SXSW, we began to change perceptions in an audience willing to listen. So many people at SXSW seek knowledge and insights, and they heard dairy’s stories from the best source possible – us.

I’m proud that the farmer leadership of the dairy checkoff signed off on being at SXSW and realized we should be part of these unique opportunities. Yes, there are times our industry needs to play defense, but we also need to be proactive so we can keep doing what we love to do as farmers.

SXSW was a great step to sharing our story with an important audience that never saw us coming.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Alabama dairy farmer Will Gilmer (left) and Michigan dairy farmer Corby Werth were two of eight dairy farmers to attend South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival on behalf of the dairy industry.

PHOTO 2: Indiana dairy farmer Sue McCloskey participates in a panel discussion talking about technology use in food production at SXSW Festival. Courtesy photos.

Will Gilmer is an Alabama dairy farmer. Follow him Will Gilmer on Twitter.

Will Gilmer is a dairy farmer from Sulligent, Alabama

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