Michele Payn is one of North America’s leading experts in connecting farm and food, serving as a resource for people around the plate. Michele encourages all of her clients and audiences to find people’s hot buttons and speak their language – whether it’s growing the “farm and food” conversation, developing an advocacy strategy or discussing mental health.
Payn knows agriculture because she lives agriculture, growing up on a dairy farm and holding degrees in Agricultural Communications and Animal Science from Michigan State University. She is past president of MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Alumni Association and had the impact of her work featured in one of the first Spartan Sagas. Career highlights include a Regional Directorship for the National FFA Foundation, where she sold over $5 million in corporate sponsorships and led campaigns to develop community support. She has also marketed and sold dairy genetics to more than 25 countries, managed e-business accounts and presented training programs in developing countries. Michele still holds her firsthand farm experience as the best contributor to her work.
She also has almost 33,000 Twitter followers, making her one of Croplife.com’s “15 Twitter Accounts Every Ag Professional Must Follow.”
She is also the author of three books: No More Food Fights!; Food Truths From Farm to Table and Food Bullying. She is also the Co-Host of the Food Bullying Podcast and founder of Cause Matters Corp, which focuses on addressing food myths, developing science communication and connecting farms to food.
And…she’s a farm girl.
Michele Payn is widely recognized as one of North America’s leading experts in connecting farms and food and she shares some of her story here.
You have a diverse background. Your career could have gone many different directions. Why did you choose to focus on ag and food?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Southern Michigan and fell in love with beautiful black and white cows (Holsteins to be clear) at a very young age. I bought my first animal when I was nine years old and I had been breeding them across my lifetime since then. So to me, working as a speaker and an author about agriculture is very much about a calling, not necessarily a career.
Twitter isn’t the most-obvious way to reach farmers or the ag community and yet you’ve made several lists of “Best People to Follow” and have almost 33,000 followers on Twitter alone. And that’s in addition to your website, podcast, books and social media channels. Tell us about your audience.
I have been in social media since 2008 – a long time ago – and my purpose has always been to form insights and inspire conversations around the food plate. So clearly agriculture is my target audience, but so are dietitian, consumers and people who are foodies and the like. My goal is to try to inspire people, to have the conversation, to incite people or provide information that is evidence-based.
I probably am a little bit different than most agriculture people because I, from the start, have built a very clear focus on connecting with those that are different than us. Having said that, clearly I enjoy talking cows with people when I have the chance. So it’s not as though I’ve tried to leave any of the ag folks out, but when I started the ag chat and food chat back in 2009, it was to serve those two or those three purposes that I talked about: insight, inspire and inform conversations. Through the different communities that I have been a part of since that time, I have continued to find great new people, including many of the guests on the food bullying podcast. Many of the contributors to my three books come from my Twitter connections specifically, but really across all of my social media connections.
You advocate against many cliche words to sell food…like “all natural” or “clean.” Is that what you mean by “Food Bullying?”
Food bullying really focuses on the way that fear is leveraged in food marketing, and neuroscience studies clearly show that our brains are being manipulated, as are our perceptions around food…and therefore farming. So it’s really interesting to take a step back and look at some of those claims – as many of them have “health halos.” I consider them all to be BS (“bullspeak”), but labels such as “clean” and “family farm raised,” I would include the “non GMO” label in that as well as “all-natural,” “superfoods,” “whole foods,” “cleansing foods,” “sustainable foods” – because those labels lack meaning since they lack measurement.
It’s really important when you consider the opportunity around food. I believe that food should be about celebration. It should be about nourishment. It should be about family tradition. It shouldn’t be about condemnation. It should not be about fear-based marketing. And at the end of the day, food bullying is really preying on people’s fears. And, as I had mentioned, that our brains are being manipulated, which is a little scary to me.
On your podcast, you often refer to “BS foods.” What are BS foods?
So BS food basically refers to the crap that’s on food labels in the way that people are making you feel about food. So bullspeak refers to the bad behaviors – the stuff that is labeled with claims and all the other unnecessary drama surrounding our food plates. Food today is a $5.75 trillion business. That is a significant opportunity for marketing.
When you go to a grocery store, as an example, if you look at the average grocery store, my estimate is that there’s around 200,000 claims that we have to sort through. That’s overwhelming. That’s confusing, especially when they are filled with BS. There’s no way any of us can sort through 200,000 claims, whether you spend 10 minutes or 50 minutes in the grocery store, trying to make food choices for your family.
What do you see ahead for farms, and food itself?
I see opportunities for farms to continue connecting with consumers and to help the non-farm public understand where their food comes from. I firmly believe that we have to take our responsibility within agriculture to be more proactive, less defensive and to do a better job listening. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to change every practice, but we need to be able to more-effectively communicate about today’s practices. I consider that opportunity – the opportunity to share your farm story – to be a best business practice today, whether you are 25 or whether you’re 55. It truly has come down to that because consumer perceptions – the same perceptions that are being manipulated – are absolutely going to allow us to farm the best way that we see fit or not. I could point to any number of case studies about how those misperceptions have costs for farmers, whether it’s regulatory, through limiting practices or omitting practices.
It goes all the way through to contracts and having product exemption in the grocery stores and restaurants. So that would be my long-winded take on the future of agriculture, and the future of food is going to be interesting because I really sense that we are at a bit of an intersection.
The example that I like to use (that I used in my book, Food Bullying) is that we want exact answers. Consider ancestry.com. People want exact answers on their heritage for a variety of reasons, but yet when it comes to food, they seem to turn away from the same technology (genetic technology) that they will implement in their own lives. So I think we need to find a way to better communicate that technology. Likewise, consumers (my hope is) is that the future of food will perhaps contain some more… let’s say sex appeal around science, perhaps? Because we are going to continue to see an increased amount of food science. Clearly that’s happening, whether it be in some of the nouveau products, whether it would be a nutrition science? But really my hope is that we will turn to bringing more evidence-based and utilizing those with firsthand expertise, such as farmers and dietitians, because that’s really where we have to be able to get our information about food.
Because of podcasts and channels like Netflix and YouTube, it seems like we have advocates for food that we’ve never had previously. You’ve done so many great interviews where you have been the interviewer. Do you have an “aha moment” from one of those? Or someone that surprisingly made a lasting impression?
Oh, I’ve learned so much. I mean, I can’t begin to tell you. The lasting impression is that agriculture is amazing and diverse! We all know that, but it is an amazing business. I’m a dairy girl. I clearly have a bias towards dairy. But, for example, yesterday I was interviewing a wheat farmer from Idaho and we talked about gluten and biotechnology. And a couple of weeks ago, we interviewed Derek for the podcast…he has a huge following and he talks to cows and it’s hysterical. So when I think about the aha moments and agriculture it really comes down to learning the specific site.
I’m in a very privileged position because when I wrote Food Truths from Farm to Table, I interviewed 55 different people. The majority of those were farmers and ranchers, but also veterinarians, doctors and dietitian. But I literally would sit there with the farmers for usually at least two hours and have them go through every product and every practice that they use from planting to harvest so that I could understand it well enough to make it digestible to readers. And likewise, on the food side, when I interviewed dietitians about food bullying and when I interviewed dietitians for some of the different podcasts, I always learn a really interesting perspective because they look at it from a different angle – and the same with chefs and consumers. The one that stands out the most to me, because it’s been the most challenging for me to learn, is my interview is around neuroscience and psychology. Dr. Tyler Davis, down at Texas Tech, did the research that is featured in food bullying about how brains process information about new food technology.
Dr. Davis did two different podcast episodes for us. I think it might’ve been the first one in season two where he shared really remarkable information. I spent a lot of time trying to digest that information, particularly in his initial research, when I first had access to it because I am not a neuroscientist. My degrees are in Animal Science and Agricultural Communications, so it was a huge challenge for me to learn this.
I think there’s a lot of opportunity for all of us in agriculture to better understand that people aren’t necessarily trying to insult us when they’re asking questions about food. They’re just trying to understand and make the best choices they can for their family. The more that we can support that through science, and in this case, I mean by understanding how people’s brains process the information, I think we can then be a lot more effective.