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Q&A: Kevin Folta, biotechnology scientist

Kevin Folta is a horticultural sciences professor at the University of Florida. He’s been communicating about science, biotechnology, and agriculture for more than 20 years, encouraging farmers to join him in sharing about their jobs.

Folta is active on Twitter and hosts the weekly Talking Biotech podcast.

On January 11, he’s taking a day of vacation to present at the 2022 Land Investment Expo to explain the lessons he’s learned the hard way.

SF: For many people with jobs in offices or the classroom, work has changed over the last two years. What does your work look like these days?

KF: The biggest change has been catering to an online audience that chooses not to be in person for course content. It’s a challenge because I never think of myself as a teacher as much as a facilitator. I like to jog them to think and discover on their own. That’s hard when they’re not in front of you. It’s very difficult to read the room, but we’re still doing it. We’re still getting by.

SF: What about the research aspect of your position? Has that changed?

KF: The research side has been a challenge for many reasons. Mostly the limited funding for exploratory research. It’s been difficult to keep a laboratory staffed, progress going, and discovery exciting, which is a shame because that’s really where my heart is.

SF: You’ve done a lot of public outreach and communications in the past, too. How has that had to change?

KF: That’s been a difficult change for me. In November of 2019, before COVID, I was told to cease all science communication efforts. I was supposed to appear at the Land Expo in 2020 and had to cancel because of the university’s demand. It was a heartbreaker for me. I also had to end a podcast that was very successful.

Eventually, I was able to negotiate being able to perform these kinds of activities on my own time. I’m doing it as outside work, consulting, and a hobby. It’s sad because it’s something I’m passionate about, but I can’t do as part of my job.

This year, I will be at Land Expo on my vacation time, speaking as a private citizen, not as an agent of the University of Florida.

SF: The topic of your talk at the upcoming Land Expo is social media. That’s changed in recent years, too. Tell me about what you see happening there.

KF:  The COVID crisis has really illuminated what a liability social media can become and how perception of any situation can be tarnished or manipulated because of immediate access to bad information that confirms the bias of the reader. You’re able to confirm some rumor you heard and make it seem like it’s legitimate.

That has been a microcosm of what we have been experiencing in agriculture now for as long as the internet has been plugged in. We’ve seen a constant assault on agriculture, agriculture technology, food, and farming. All of this started because of the conduit of the internet, where a few difficult voices have had command of the conversation.

Farmers and scientists have not stepped in. And when we did, we traditionally did it wrong. Now, we’re correcting that. Some people are doing beautiful work, but we need more people to be participating in this conversation and doing it correctly.

SF: Is there a social media platform that is better or worse about fueling the miscommunication and false information?

KF: They’re all guilty. That means it’s a bigger challenge for us, because we have to learn how to tailor the message to fit each platform. This is a problem because the bad guys have experts with full-time jobs to disavow what we do in farming and agriculture. That means all of us have to invest a couple minutes now and then to equal that effort. It’s about mobilizing the people who are friendly to agriculture and getting them involved in the conversations.

SF: What’s the first step to getting started on that?

KF: Step one is to share information that you find compelling with your audience and your networks. It’s very simple. You find credible voices and share what they produce. Share good podcasts. Share good stories. Share good videos. It takes five minutes a week to amplify the good messages of others.

SF: How do people make the amplification of what they find compelling more powerful than the rumors or untruths others find compelling?

KF: I’ve got a couple of tips here. First, don’t turn off your potential audience. Being angry or bitter toward others who disagree with you will do that. Disgust weighs very heavily. People turn off the people that react in offensive ways. 

Give people the farm hug. In a noisy room of insults, the person reaching out with kindness really stands out.

SF: Agriculture is so personal for our readers, so the misinformation can be really upsetting. How do you calm yourself down so you can reach out with kindness?

KF: You have to realize you are on the side of the angels here. The only thing that being another angry voice in the cesspool of the internet does is alienate the people who you need to capture. Starting with “help me understand,” listening to other people, and understanding how they got to where they are helps you formulate a better, empathetic, and deescalated response. That’s attractive to everybody who’s watching.

SF: You mentioned there are some people who are doing this well, that we just need more. Who is an example?

KF: Look at Millennial Farmer. He’s a corn and soybean farmer in Minnesota who does fantastic media and YouTube. To some ag people, it may seem boring, but to the average person who knows nothing about food and farming, his content is extremely valuable.

You have to consider people want to know what you do as a farmer, or someone involved in agriculture at some level. They want to know what you do. They want to know where their food comes from. Show them what you do. That kind of transparency, while you may feel it’s unnecessary, it’s something they want.

SF: Some of our readers have no desire to be the person in front of a camera or microphone. How can they support the agriculture people who are?

KF: There are two ways to participate. The first way is content preparation. That is podcasts, writing, video, blogs. Use all of the emerging media that people are using, and the places people go to get information.

If you don’t want to create content, amplify the content of others. We go back to the idea of finding good media and sharing it within your networks. If every farmer and person associated with agriculture, 1.5% of the country, amplified the messages of their advocates, we would have a much better perception in the eyes of the public.

SF: Do you have any words for the people creating content when things get discouraging or the activists attack?

KF: You can’t stop. You have to do the right thing, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much it can change your life, no matter how much it can change your plans. Certainly, my personal and professional lives have been changed, and not always in a good way, but it’s the right thing to do.

At the end of the day, when my head hits the pillow, I know that I stood up and fought for the thing that was most important. The satisfaction of that is what you will have to feed off of. Otherwise, if you dwell on the negative, it can be overwhelming.

SF: What can readers who will listen to your talk at Land Expo expect to walk away with?

KF: By nature, farmers and scientists feel the way to solve a problem is to bury it in information, facts, and logic. It doesn’t work in a world driven by emotion and sensationalism. We have to advance conversations in different ways. I’ve explored this with boots on the ground activity for 20 years. I see all the mistakes I made.

At Land Expo you’ll hear about all the mistakes I made and how I learned to be more effective. I’ll give you strategies that you can adopt so that we can all work together to enhance the perception of agriculture.

SF: What do you want to share with our readers ahead of Land Expo?

KF: In farming, there are too many things we can’t control – weather, international pressures, prices. This is one thing we can control, and we don’t do it. At least not enough. This is something we can control, and something I would like all folks in agriculture to be more comfortable doing. We’re a tiny part of the population, but a really important population. It’s important that agriculture’s voice is being heard from legitimate sources.

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