Rancher provides view to people who are far from the land
By CARL SAMPSON
Agriculture is engaged in a battle to fill a void.
The void is a lack of understanding about agriculture among many members of the public. Farming and ranching is so far removed from most people that they don't seem to know one end of a cow from the other.
Into that void walks folks like Michael Pollan, a best-selling author who has made a name for himself as an "expert" on farming and ranching. In his presentations, for which he is paid $20,000 to $45,000, he offers all sorts of ideas about how to "improve" agriculture and, consequently, the world.
He says he wants to get the public to think about food and where it comes from, which is a good thing. The problem is that, because the public knows so little about agriculture, they tend to take his opinions at face value.
He gave a presentation earlier this month at Washington State University. Last fall, he spoke at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. No doubt the audiences at those agricultural schools were able to assimilate Pollan's remarks along with what they already knew about agriculture and gain added perspective.
Other audiences that Pollan speaks to, like those at his appearance this week on the Oprah Winfrey Show, do not have an agricultural background. When he speaks, he is starting with a blank slate, or close to it. Whatever he says about growing genetically modified crops, using pesticides or anything else, the audience has no background to serve as a reality check.
Enter Bill Hoyt. He's the new president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. The Cottage Grove, Ore., rancher's goal is talking with as many people as he can about ranching and agriculture.
Call him the anti-Pollan.
He plans to speak to any and every civic group and club -- anyone who will let him talk about ranching and its successes and challenges.
He hopes to fill the void that Pollan takes advantage of.
Last month, he gave a talk to the Rotary Club in the Pearl District of Portland, the hip and trendy part of the city.
"We've had this disconnect for a period of time," he told the Capital Press recently. "What we have to do now is bridge that disconnect."
He pointed to a survey that found farmers and ranchers have a high level of credibility with the public, particularly in a small-group or one-on-one setting. He plans to take advantage of that credibility to tell agriculture's story in general and OCA's story in particular.
He tells it through his experience as a fifth-generation rancher whose family came to the Oregon territory in 1852. That history alone gives him credibility.
"We've often waited until we had a crisis and then played defense," he said. "That puts us in a difficult situation, and often the results have not been good."
By speaking to groups he hopes to plant the seeds of understanding of agriculture. To help out, the OCA is developing a speaker's bureau, with other ranchers who can tell their stories, too.
Other agricultural groups have leaders and members -- all of them anti-Pollans -- who speak to civic groups about the realities of farming and ranching in the 21st century. That is a good thing.
What would be good is if groups who don't understand agriculture would give people like Hoyt a call and invite him to a meeting. He'd be tickled.
And he wouldn't charge $45,000 to talk.