Saturday, 28 April 2012

MLA website to bridge the metro-rural divide

Image from MLA's Target 100 website.
This post started when I read a story this morning on the Australian's website titled 'Young farmers carving a niche' by John Lethlean. The story is paywalled, unfortunately. It sits in the publication's Food & Wine section. It's about a small Tasmanian farm where pork is grown. Eliza Wood and Guy Robertson of Mount Gnomon Farm sell their produce around Australia. The story is aimed at the metro consumer and it talks about this artisanal outfit in a way that allows metro readers to understand why the two farmers are doing what they're doing. Eliza is a trained journalist and Guy is an agricultural scientist and they now run a profitable farm in north-west Tasmania. But it was something that Eliza said in the story that really caught my interest:
"I don't think the farmers of the future are necessarily the ones who can plough a straight row ... or fix a tractor," says Wood. "I think it's about marketing and communicating. I don't think many farmers have explored how they can engage with the community. They all go on about this disconnect between townies and farmers ... but they're doing nothing about it."
Her remarks reminded me of a short Twitter conversation I had last Sunday with a farmer. He said, “The community see #fishing same as any Ag industry, unsustainable. We should all stop eating or find a sustainable way.” I asked this guy if he really thought people think agriculture is unsustainable and he answered, “That is the very clear message I as a farmer get from the community, maybe something that needs clarifying.”

It's easy to put two and two together, especially in the light of the popularity of such people as Lyn White, who was notably featured this week on the ABC's Australian Story. White is the activist who took the video footage in an Indonesian abattoir that led the federal agriculture minister to shut down live cattle exports last year. She's an ex-cop, she lives near the beach, she's always loved animals, she jogs. The ABC managed to personalise her in a way that is meaningful for the same metro residents who would read Lethlean's story about a free range pig farm. The media are aware of what's important to metro residents and that's why they run these stories. The hook is there already, there's no need to sell the basic message, the consumer is primed to pay attention to these stories. It's in the bag.

Meat and Livestock Australia is conscious of the lineaments of the urban-rural divide and earlier this month launched an ambitious web project designed to bridge it, called Target 100. The website contains information about initiatives being undertaken in Australia to promote sustainability. It also has a number of videos, and provides a space for farmers to upload their own stories to the website. The site was built by Community Engine, which is a cutting-edge outfit that has in the past been involved in such things as online voting. It's not just a flat website.

The website also contains information about issues that should be important to urban residents, such as food wastage, packaging, and keeping herbs in the backyard.

For me the problem is in the quality of the copy. There are a lot of initiatives listed here but the writing is very uneven in quality, as if it's just been cobbled together from a wide range of sources. A lot of it is not easy to read, being too scientific and full of jargon. The people behind the website would be advised to look at ways they can improve the quality of the copy so that it is actually easy to read. Most people just will not bother with what's currently there, no matter how useful it might be.

So far there have only been two mentions of Target 100 in the press. One story was in the local Gladstone newspaper because one of the farmers the MLA has focused on, Stuart Barrett, lives nearby. The other story was in Queensland Country Life, for the same reason. But this kind of coverage should not be what the MLA is aiming for. What they really need to get is coverage in the metro press.

It's a valid response by MLA to a pressing image problem but it's not what Eliza at Mount Gnomon Farm is talking about. What she means is that farmers need to individually get out and engage, start talking with, the community of consumers who live in cities and whose opinions drive not only national policy agendas but also purchasing trends followed by retailers. A problem for farmers is that it takes time to make interesting content. MLA's website shows us that, by not spending enough of it on the quality of the content. Blogging with a metro audience in mind also offers up other challenges. What do metro readers care about? How can I frame what I do in such a way that it answers that need? But I think it's better to start and make mistakes, than to do nothing. There are lots of good stories out there that metro consumers would enjoy reading about.

1 comment:

Marian Macdonald said...

I am just such a farmer. My blog, is aimed at helping us (farmers and non-farmers) get a better understanding of each other. I am still coming to grips with what non-farmers find interesting but have been amazed to see how diverse the readers are and how popular it's become in a short time. Maybe we have more in common than we think!