Eight years ago, I opened up my own shop and became a “professional speaker.” I left the stability of a good salary (at least in the eyes of a farmer’s daughter),  a corporate office team and the opportunity to hob knob with senior managers across the agrifood business. It was exciting, yet terrifying.  In retrospect, becoming an entrepeneur was one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve made – and gave credence to my life standard “no risk, no reward.”

Ag Speaker Michele Payn-Knoper, CSPTypically I don’t share a lot about myself because I believe the issues in agricultural advocacy outweigh my own story- and also due to security concerns for my family (terrorism by extremist animal rights and environmental groups is on the rise).  However, the transparency encouraged in social media – and recent attacks on my integrity – have helped me understand the need to be a bit more personal.

So, here’s my transparency; I hope it gives you a feel for why food literacy is so vitally important. Perhaps it will also give you a reason to share your personal role in agriculture with others.

  • First off, I have lived on a farm my entire life.  Our family’s dairy farm was lost to bankruptcy in the late 90s, a tremendously painful experience that gave me firsthand understanding of the need to speak out.  My husband and I have built a small farm with a few head of cattle, 3 cats, 2 dogs and a lot of wildlife. We cash rent most of our land and don’t call ourselves farmers out of respect for people with “real” farms, though many of our “city friends” coin us as such. I’m a blue-eyed blonde who can tame a 1500-pound cow, have milked in a skirt and can drive a skid-steer with the best of  them.
  • Speaking and consulting has allowed me to work with thousands of  agricultural people across the world. 95% of my audiences are farmers or ranchers in North America – I am paid to train them to speak out more effectively for agriculture.  It’s mystifying why agriculture’s voice seems to be such a threat to some, yet this also tells me we are gaining traction.
  • Farm Bureaus (of which I’m a member), National Pork Board, American Agri-Women, Indiana State Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin Dietetic Association and many other rural organizations are the types of groups that hire me.  I have spoken for “the giants” Monsanto, Pfizer, Elanco and J.R. Simplot – all of which give me free rein to share my views (which do not always match their corporate agenda).  Some pundits infer that my client list makes me less than genuine, but I am proud to work with a variety of perspectives across agriculture.  Suffice it to say that you can’t effectively give a 60-minute keynote or 3-hour workshop unless it’s in your heart.
  • My passion drives me to help others share agriculture’s story by diminishing defensiveness, while preaching proactiveness. 98.5% of the U.S. population is not on a farm.  It’s not consumers’ fault that they’re disconnected from their food, but it also does not mean farmers deserve to be demonized.  We somehow must bridge the two worlds.  I don’t believe the connection will be  accomplished if agriculture doesn’t  start speaking the same language as consumers. It’s a tough task for independent people who prefer the land to a microphone and  science instead of emotion.
  • Cause Matters Corp. is a 1.5 person shop, not a major corporation. I enjoy hand picking projects to help others, am thankful for great clients and seem constantly challenged to get everything done, especially since the advent of social media mania.
  • I’m not pro “big ag”, against slow food, or anti-organic. Whether working with dietitians, elected officials or neighbors  – my mission is science-based decision making and applied critical thinking skills.  And, I’m a big proponent of getting people to farms – not just tourist destinations or community gardens, but real modern farms.  Who better to explain how food, feed, fuel and fiber is grown than those who live it every day?
  • “Ideating” with people really excites me. I love to work in developing countries, such as the Ukraine and Egypt, where I have found some of life’s greatest lessons from people without food on their plate. I believe if more Americans had experiences beyond their own dinner plate, we’d have greater understanding of the  technology (and infrastructure) necessary to feed a burgeoning global population.
  • My favorite place in the world is in the country – appreciating the growth cycle of plants and animals – and the peace that comes with it. The views from my office window are a tribute to this environment, as is the work I do daily to preserve agriculture as a cornerstone of the U.S.
  • We have a young child who provides a daily inspiration for our legacy in agriculture (my husband is a dairy nutritionist). We like to garden, travel, judge & show dairy cattle, volunteer in our community and cheer on the MSU Spartans. Our faith is important to us, as is our wonderful circle of friends.
  • Impatience is my greatest weakness and incompetence makes my blood boil.  And, I strongly believe in the freedom of choice – particularly in the grocery story aisle and on the farm.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I’m very thankful to serve and work in a business that I love. Can you say the same? And if you’re passionate about your work, how have you shared it with your community?