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3 Open Minutes with Michele Payn-Knoper

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 19 March 2013

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Professional speaker and “agvocate” trainer Michele Payn-Knoper has written and released a book intended to bring many voices from across the food chain together for a civilized conversation about what we eat. No More Food Fights! is available for purchase by clicking here.

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Progressive Dairyman Editor Emily Caldwell recently caught up with Payn-Knoper (MPK) about the book and her plans to continue the “gate to plate” discussion. Click here to read Caldwell's review of the book.

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What made you want to write a book?

MPK: I wrote the book because I thought that it was time for farmers and foodies to do a better job of having a civil conversation, specifically from the agriculture side. We all know that there are fewer and fewer generations on the farm.

It’s obviously frustrating for a small minority to have to speak to a large quantity of people that have little to no frame of reference around where their food comes from. On the flip side, I also see a strong need for people in agriculture to learn about what food interests truly are and do a better job of listening.

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Food deserves to be celebrated; where food comes from deserves to be celebrated. And at the end of the day, food is a personal choice, just as much as farming is a personal choice. I don’t think it should be our role to dictate what people are eating, just as it shouldn’t be people’s role on the other side of the plate to dictate how we are farming. Both are a personal choice, and one should not override the other.

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What was the process like of writing and publishing the book?

MPK: I’ve been speaking for 12 years about agricultural advocacy. I’ve felt the need for the last 10 years, but I never could get all the way there on the idea of a book for just the ag audience because I didn’t feel that was serving the cause best. I had started compiling information last winter when I came up with the concept of incorporating the food side.

In August, the concept of having a two-sided book struck me. I turned in my manuscript at the end of October 2012 and kept writing, and it moved forward from there. So September through January were really busy, but I knew it was important to get it out this winter when I knew people would have time to read it.

My hope is that it will, perhaps, provide a different perspective to some of the food books out there, from authors like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle. Not that there’s anything wrong with those books. I actually quoted Michael Pollan a couple of times in my book, rather intentionally.

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To me, this book was about bringing the agriculture perspective to the plate and trying to get people in agriculture to look across the plate and realize we have to understand concerns and listen.

We don’t have to agree with them, but it’s the understanding and listening and at least trying to have a conversation. It always goes back to connecting as humans first.

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Tell me more about the decision to have the book flip. What does that physical act of turning over the book represent to you?

MPK: Before I wrote the food side, I had interviewed a dietitian, a chef and an Olympian athlete, so I actually tried to write the food side based on what I heard from the food people.

Then I took those stories and put them on the farm side. So it’s about sharing the flip side of the plate and realizing that the concerns are the same, no matter what side of the plate you’re on.

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What do you think readers might be surprised to learn about your experiences in writing the book?

MPK: I had to be talked into writing the glossary for the food side of the book. I had professional speakers and colleagues who reviewed the book for me and really pushed back about it. I had to be convinced that people did not know what a haymow was. I mean, come on, it’s a haymow. Everyone knows what that is!

I tried to write it from a third-grade level. And that’s something I’d really challenge readers about too: How can you bring our terms to a level in which a non-farm population would understand?

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Which side – farm or food – was easier to write?

MPK: The farm side was centered on the “6½ Steps to a More Meaningful Conversation” that I’ve based my advocacy training on for 12 years. So it’s more intuitive.

It was challenging to find the right examples to share with the farm side and trying to help people reflect. I want it to be a book that people read, reflect, contemplate and read some more. I hope that it will stir thinking. It’s not meant to provide all the answers, but it is meant to provide the “how-to’s.”

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Which section or chapter of the book pushed you the most in your writing?

MPK: One of the last pieces I wrote was sharing in the food side about my cow that was down. It pushed me because of the difficulty in sharing what it’s like to deal with a down cow.

I did that to illustrate that we care deeply about our animals in the dairy business, as do most animal agriculturalists, and it’s not fair to judge us as a whole based on a few rotten apples or bad actors. Dealing with a down cow is obviously pretty ugly.

Farming is not a pretty business all the time. I’m not a big fan of sharing the ugliest images, but at the same time, I’m not sure it serves our purpose well to show only the idyllic images.

The night before the book release, I had to ship my 91-point cow, and I posted a photo of her and I on my Facebook page. I shared that photo very strategically. It was an opportunity for me to say, “This stinks!” and have support from both farming and non-farming friends.

But it was also an opportunity for me to share with non-farming friends that while it’s an honor and privilege to care for these animals, their purpose is to provide us with food.

So sometimes it’s just explaining, “Look, this isn’t a great part of the business, but it’s reality.”

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What has been the feedback so far? What are your plans to get the book beyond the farming community?

MPK: I think the reaction has been positive. I’ve been very touched by the reaction that people showed early on. I’ve done a great deal through social media to try to get the book to build interest.

We’re also actively working with Harvest Public Relations out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, to help mainstream media become aware of the book.

I’ve been very fortunate that the International Food Information Council gave it a positive review. I have involved several dietitians throughout the process – dietitians endorse it and dietitians have contributed.

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What’s next for MPK and Cause Matters Corp?

MPK: One of the last sections of the food side I wrote was actually the introduction, where I took a trip around the grocery store and talked about all of the different labels on food and the rumors I’ve heard.

That framed for me what I hope to do next. I’m not committing to anything, but I do expect there to be another book in the future that will be aimed specifically at the non-farm public.

But I’m always interested in ideas, so I encourage readers to share their ideas and stories with me. People’s stories inspire me. The more that I can do to try to help share the agriculture perspective and then also remind people on the farm side there is a food perspective, the happier I am.

But at the end of the day, I want people to understand that this is not about me. This is not about my name. It’s about moving the conversation to a different level to help the cause for all of us in agriculture and for people with food interests.

Food should not be the next religion and politics, where it’s so contentious that you’re afraid to talk about it with even your friends and family. That’s insane! We all eat three times a day. Why does it have to be so difficult?

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Is there anything you wish you could change about the book?

MPK : Well, I wish there were no typos in it but perhaps that’s representative that no one is perfect. In retrospect, I should have spent more time story-telling on the farm side. It was much more pragmatic than the food side, with thoughts around, "These are the steps on what to do and this is how it works." I feel like I did more of just laying out the facts. I put so much personal perspective on the food side.

When I wrote the book, it was very intentionally written to address both sides of the plate, and it was a high priority for me to have the dietitian, the chef, the "foodie," the healthcare perspective on the farm side. To me, that's where the story-telling comes in – through other people's words.

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In our 2010 interview about AgChat Foundation , you mentioned that dairy was a front runner in the ag industry about adapting to social media and telling stories. Do you think that holds true today? How do you think dairy is doing about going beyond the choir?

MPK : Dairy is still doing a solid job in social media, and I commend the people who are taking the time for Facebooking and tweeting and blogging. I see some reaching beyond the choir quite effectively. U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has done a lot of work in researching how effective farmers in social media have been in connecting with consumers.

I'd challenge readers to continue sharing more pictures and videos. I'm a little biased here, but dairy cattle are naturally attractive. Sharing those images allows people to get an inside look of farming.

There is a litmus test when it comes to going beyond the choir. When the nasty videos come out, as they will continue doing, and are people coming to you about those videos and asking questions? That's when you know you've done your job. If people hear something about food and farming and they ask you the question or they think of you (or post on your Facebook wool), that's reaching beyond the choir. It's difficult to measure, but when you've gone beyond the choir, you know it.

Ultimately, we need more voices. It is a business practice’s on today’s progressive dairy and if you’re not at the table, don’t complain when HSUS or EPA speaks for you. PD

Click here to read a related blog post from Caldwell on the Proud to Dairy network.


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Emily Caldwell
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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