What farmers can learn from Chris Hadfield

Commander Chris Hadfield returned to earth last month as Canada’s latest national hero.

He’s the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, helped conduct a record-breaking 130 experiments in space and even presided over a last-minute spacewalk by two fellow astronauts to fix an ammonia leak on the station a few days before he was due to return to Earth.

In addition to all that, he allowed Canadians – and indeed people around the world – to follow him on this remarkable journey.

Like no other astronaut before him, Hadfield has given those of us on earth a glimpse of what it’s like to live in space, something many dream about doing but few are ever lucky enough to experience in real life.

Hadfield’s photos of our planet from space and his chatty, informative updates about everything from station experiments and equipment maintenance to how to shave and what astronauts eat in space have built him a fan following that many marketers, brand people and social media gurus can only dream of – over 900,000 Twitter followers, more than 330,000 Facebook likes and over 95,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel at last check.

His open willingness to communicate, tweet, post, photograph and video has made Canadians proud of his accomplishments and of our country.

He has also made space travel cool again, something that after 30 years of fairly regular shuttle missions had become pretty ho-hum for the general public.

But most of all, by talking about what he did in space and why he did it, he has made space science much more understandable and helped people “get” why the International Space Station and its research work is valuable – and why we should care about it.

To me, there are some obvious parallels here to our world of farming.

There’s a general complaint in the farm community that the public doesn’t understand agriculture, that people don’t know where their food comes from, and that consumers need to be re-connected to the farm.

As an industry, we have a chance to do something about that.

As Chris Hadfield has shown us, there are many ways to get a message out. New, free tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and others let farmers and the agriculture community connect directly with consumers, politicians or the media in our own words and pictures.

Granted, there is a learning curve with these tools and social media is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there does seem to be a consumer thirst for knowledge.

The latest Ipsos Reid study about Canadian attitudes towards food and farming, commissioned by Farm & Food Care and released late last year, showed Canadians want to learn more about where their food comes from and that they consider farmers to be highly credible, authentic spokespeople.

As well, the study showed that for the youngest demographic that represents the next generation of consumers, the Internet is their preferred source of information.

Although as farmers we don’t have that automatic wow factor that astronauts do, we have many of the same things on our farms that Chris Hadfield had in space – like amazing science and high tech equipment.

And just like some of the work on the space station that has an ultimate goal of improving human health or improving the environment, the food, feed and other things we produce can also positively impact human health and the world around us.

There are awesome things happening in agriculture every day that most people have no idea about, but I bet they’d be interested if they knew about them and why they’re relevant to their daily lives.

The stories are ours for the telling and the tools are at our fingertips.

Note: this was originally published as a commentary in the Ontario Farmer, May 21, 2013.

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