The Role of Communications in the Agriculture Industry Has Never Been More Important

We didn’t seek this crisis.


When it found us, though, ACF members demonstrated their value by playing a central role in Florida agriculture’s response.


Florida agriculture needed to allay public fears about food safety, inform policy makers about economic impacts, connect consumers directly to farmers, and spotlight the importance of a reliable homegrown food supply. ACF communicators acted quickly to craft and disseminate messages to increase public understanding of COVID-19’s implications for the food supply.


There’s been a lot to keep our organizations abreast of. There’s been the designation of agriculture as critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security. Multiple efforts are linking consumers directly to producerswho in normal times would be sending more of their produce to the foodservice market. Farmers are eager for information about how to tap into federal emergency funding, increased federal purchases for food banks, and federally backed loans for food producers.


FDACS marketing and development director Jackie Moalli reallocated funds for trade shows that were canceled because of COVID-19 and channeled them into a substantial media buy. This delivered the messages to both traditional TV broadcast outlets and Hulu that Florida farmers are still on the job and to ask the public to stand with Florida farmers by buying local. The department also tapped into public appreciation for front-line workers with a beautifully produced FDACS video tribute to the Florida farmer.


Lisa Lochridge, FFVA director of public affairs and ACF board member, relied on longstanding media relationships to explain how the sudden halt of the foodservice market led to staggering losses to the Florida fresh produce industry. Her outreach to the New York Times resulted in a story on farmers’ coronavirus-related plight that featured FFVA chair Paul Allen. Her thorough briefing of a Sentinel opinion writer resulted in a revelatory editorial that called for addressing the disconnect between consumers and their food sources. To help farms move some of their product, FFVA communications manager and ACF President Alyssa List put out a call to growers around the state to promote their direct farm-to-consumers sales on a webpage she created that would become an exceedingly popular resource for the general public.


New ACF board member Chris Moran supported our industry’s thought leaders by assisting in the conception, writing and pitching of calls to buy local by UF/IFAS Senior Vice President Jack Payne that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times and the Palm Beach Post. Chris and Lisa also assisted Payne and FFVA President Mike Joyner with a joint op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel highlighting the challenges Florida farmers faced before the crisis that have intensified since the beginning of March.


UF/IFAS public relations specialist and former ACF President Tory Moore and her colleagues have disseminated news releases daily that explore every agricultural angle of the COVID-19 crisis. The UF/IFAS news blog includes posts on food safety, online pesticide training, connecting 4-H youth with buyers for their animals with so many fairs canceled, and the impacts to specific commodities ranging from watermelons to cut flowers.


New ACF board member Amber Gray of Produce for Kids was just about to launch a marketing campaign with retailers to encourage purchases of more produce with part of the proceeds going to food banks. COVID-19 put that on hold, and her team shifted to consumer-focused blog posts like “8 Fruits & Veggies You Can Regrow from Scraps.” Amber also took the opportunity to educate her peers in a Produce News guest column, “Pivoting digital strategy in a coronavirus world.”


Amber Maloney, an ACF board member who’s the marketing director at Wish Farms, highlighted the company’s donations of 220,000 pounds of fresh strawberries to food banks on the company’s feelgood webpage. Last month she ran a “Buy Local. Spread Happiness.” campaign on Instagram in which users nominated favorite local businesses by tagging them in comments on Wish Farms posts. Wish Farms bought $500 gift cards from 10 nominated businesses and donated them to a children’s charity.


For ACF member Cathleen Conley, a communications specialist at DUDA, response to the crisis meant focusing on clear internal communications. She, along with ACF member and Corporate Communications Director Donna Duda, worked to anticipate employee questions and concerns to proactively address them in consistent updates, while ensuring strong messages of hope and resilience remain present throughout.


ACF board member Betsy McGill has led the Turfgrass Producers of Florida through the crisis with simple messages and updates through email communications. She has limited her messaging to only the most relevant information and only when necessary, mindful that members’ inboxes were already stuffed with an overflow of COVID-19 messages from other sources.


These efforts and others exemplify the critically important role agriculture communicators play, especially in times of crisis. We don’t downplay the challenges, but at the same time we regard them as opportunities.


One opportunity is the heightened public interest in our food supply. Of course that comes with concerns: a recent survey by the UF/IFAS Public Issues Education Center found that nearly 80 percent of agriculture and natural resources leaders are concerned that media and news outlets were sharing inaccurate information about COVID-19.


ACF members know that communicating the importance of Florida agriculture will be a continuing challenge, but it’s an opportunity to do what they do best: ensure the industry’s voice remains strong.