For farmers and ranchers, The Food Dialogues town halls (September 22, 2011) were an important first step in listening and answering questions about food production. But they were only the beginning. Much more work needs to be done.

For U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) it was the beginning of a long-term commitment to helping consumers understand how their food is grown and raised. It was an acknowledgement of the need to find common ground among diverse voices.

If you liked the event and the concept of this movement, please keep up the conversation. If you are a farmer or rancher – small, medium or large – answer questions, talk to people in your coffee shop and share your stories here at www.fooddialogues.com and in other online forums.

Remember that most people don’t have firsthand experience with farms or ranches of any size and don’t understand why we make the choices we make. You can help answer their questions.

Now we need to do more to acknowledge concerns and be more specific on answers. In the coming weeks, USFRA will begin highlighting the most popular questions we’ve received – and we’ll post links to factual answers, and, most important, we will encourage farmers and ranchers to also answer the questions and share their stories. Here is the list of all the questions we’ve received to date. If you are a concerned consumer, keep asking those questions.

There have been some who have concerns about today’s agriculture who have been willing to come to the table and give The Food Dialogues a chance. Some were panelists at our town halls, some have commented online, but many more have been observers. They may have some tough stuff to say – but we thank them for starting this journey with us. We are listening. We’re looking for open, honest and reasonable thoughts about how we can work more closely together towards achieving common goals on behalf of the American public.

Michael Dimock from Roots of Change and a panelist is concerned that USFRA’s activities are too much like a monologue and not a dialogue. He says on his blog about the event:

“Production agriculture’s real problem is rebuilding trust with the 42%. People want to trust that farmers and ranchers are on the right track, but there are legitimate concerns based on facts that are not being addressed. AND, there are some illegitimate concerns based on a lack of information, misinformation or misunderstanding. Dealing with trust problem first will make it easier to fix the information problem later.”

But he also wrote:

“During the entire event, I am not sure I heard one farmer or rancher say that any concern raised was legitimate or even worth exploring. Instead, farmers and ranchers would address concerns by saying that they only do what must be done. Then they moved on to the next issue. That approach ends the dialogue before it begins.”

These are very valid points, Michael. And we know farmers and ranchers are taking your comments to heart.

In an article this week in the New York Times about The Food Dialogues, Myra Goodman, a founder of Earthbound Farms, is quoted about why Earthbound hasn’t joined USFRA yet.

“If in practice it turns out to be a forum for honest, inclusive, productive discussions about the state of our food system, it could be good,” she said. “If it turns out to be all about protecting the status quo, then it won’t be so productive.”

We couldn’t agree more. Myra, thanks for watching and seeing the potential value. Please join us if you think we’re getting it right.

We’ve raised the bar and need to keep going.

Most farmers and ranchers in this country – small, medium and large; organic, natural, or conventional – are trying to give consumers healthy food choices while protecting the environment, caring for their animals, supporting their local communities and building their businesses. They literally put our food on our table.

And USFRA fully admits that we are trying to quell the destructive voices that attack without facts or dismiss us outright as a tool of “big ag.” Many of these comments are unfair and so dangerous to real dialogue and constructive solutions. We’ve heard those voices too – and hope they will give the thousands of farmers and ranchers who are members of USFRA’s affiliates a real chance. The Web site “Good Food World” posted the following:

“I admit, if they really could repair the environment that they have despoiled, or restore the public health which they have damaged, or even think about sharing the wealth with the workers who they’ve cheated, I might jump over to their side. Don’t hold your breath!”

Making these broad assertions hurts individual farmers and ranchers deeply . You are painting a committed and hardworking industry as evil doers who are destroying our planet and our health. This is ridiculous and unfair. To Michael Dimock’s point, dialogue can be helpful, but monologues are a waste of time.

So watch for more information and more conversation.

Let’s keep talking.