The Great Rebranding of American Agriculture: Q&A with the USDA's Matthew Herrick - Modern Farmer

The Great Rebranding of American Agriculture: Q&A with the USDA’s Matthew Herrick

America's biggest agricultural bureaucracy gets social media savvy to spread their love on the local food movement.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visits Rainbow Farms booth to select a few melons at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square in Cleveland, OH on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015.
Photography Courtesy USDA

Since taking over the role last summer, Herrick has spearheaded an effort to rebrand this enormous federal institution, which employs 90,000 people nationwide, from a detached, unapproachable bureaucracy to a friendly, responsive organization that is in tune with the mindset of forward-looking farmers and health-conscious consumers.

The goal is for the USDA to get “involved with the relevant conversations that are happening out there,” says Herrick. “We’ve been outside of the conversation for so long. Why have we been outside of it? How do we get engaged? How do we have a two-way conversation and respond to people, not only when they have concerns, but when they’re excited about something?”

Social media has been a primary platform for striking up those sorts of conversations. In January, the USDA rolled out a year-long “storytelling project” on the hyper-blogging site Medium, a side project of Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. Each month a new “chapter” appears, telling the story of one facet of agriculture in America, and the USDA’s involvement in it, through prose, photos, podcasts, videos, and an assortment of other multimedia widgets. The Medium project is clearly a marketing tool, but it provides a window into how the USDA hopes to be perceived by the public – as well is how the Obama administration wants to paint its legacy in food and farming

Judging from the content posted so far, it would appear that the goal is to de-emphasize the USDA’s role in industrial agriculture, and reframe the agency as wholly pro-environment, socially-conscious, supportive of small diversified farms, and friendly of local food. For example, themes of the agency’s recent Medium posts have included resource conservation, SNAP benefits, and anti-obesity efforts. April is dedicated to local food systems and organic agriculture – the stories tout a laundry list of impressive statistics, ranging from the $1 billion invested in local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects to the recent 105 percent increase in locally- and regionally-sourced food in school cafeterias under the USDA’s Farm to School Program to the funding of 15,000 high tunnels on American farms. Herrick says the roster for the rest of the year includes themes like climate change, civil rights, and rural development funding for Promise Zones, the 100 most disadvantaged ZIP codes in the US.

There is no hiding the USDA’s deep involvement with Big Ag – nor the (arguably) backwards national food policy under which the USDA operates, much of which contradicts the rosy picture put out on Medium – but they clearly recognize the importance of local and sustainable food systems, even if that continues to be a relatively small part of our country’s agriculture story.

Herrick recently sat down with Modern Farmer to give a behind-the-scenes look into the USDA’s branding strategy, and what he sees as the most important forces shaping the conversation around food and farming today.

*This interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.

Modern Farmer: With all the different facets of agriculture, and all the widely conflicting opinions out there about food and farming, how do you approach branding for the USDA?

Matthew Herrick: I think that’s always the challenge of being such a large bureaucracy – how do you talk to people about the work that you do and demonstrate to them that you’re a positive partner in making a difference in their lives?

We do everything from managing the national forests to managing the nation’s school nutrition program to overseeing food and agriculture exports. We’re one of the largest rural development lenders in the country – if we were a bank we would be one of the top seven banks in the US. We’re also a regulatory agency, so we manage, not only the national organic program, but also food safety – we inspect meat and eggs in the United States. We have offices in 80 countries around the world, not to mention an office in almost every county in the country.

“The one message that unifies everything that we do here is that we are very focused on trying to revitalize rural communities across the country.”

So we are a big, big place, but really the one message that unifies everything that we do here is that we are very focused on trying to revitalize rural communities across the country. In our storytelling and communications efforts we’ve really tried to connect that message back to the consumer. We want to talk to the folks who are looking at how they spend their family’s resources, and connect with them in a different way. Rather than just bombarding everybody with press releases and putting out random tweets and Facebook posts, we decided to try to channel our conversation more specifically, to tailor it, and also to have a two-way conversation with folks.

I’ve worked in government for a long time and we tend to talk at people – we don’t listen so much and take in feedback and change what we’re doing. Part of our communications efforts in 2016 is really all about communicating to the people and listening to what they’ve been telling us and telling their stories through their experiences. We want to tell a story about local and regional food systems through the experience of those that we have helped. It’s a great story.

MF: In what way does the USDA see itself as supporting small farmers and the local food movement?

MH: Local food was sort of a marginal movement in the early 2000s; it didn’t have the heft that it has today. A lot of that is because we saw federal funding for the first time. I think when the Secretary [of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack] came into office he made a very conscious decision to carve out space, not only at the table to talk with folks that had smaller operations and medium-size operations, but to put the weight of policy and resources behind the talk.

We’ve invested over $1 billion since 2009 in the [local food] space. And we’ve done all the things that people have wanted us to do for the most part. So there is crop insurance now for smaller farmers; there is crop insurance for people that have diversified farms. We have invested in farmers markets across the country and seen huge growth in that. And not only for folks who are paying cash, but anybody can go there with an EBT card from the SNAP program and buy produce now. And in some places you can even get twice as much for your dollar because there are community organizations out there that are chipping in, in partnership with us, to help low income folks afford produce.

MF: Clearly there’s been a huge push by the USDA to embrace local food systems in terms of funding and programs. But in terms of messaging, has there been a conscious attempt to rebrand the USDA as environmentally-friendly, small farm-friendly, local food-friendly, etc. – as opposed to primarily being an ally of Big Ag?

MH: We really want the message to come across that we’re a partner for all of agriculture, for all size operations, for small farmers and medium-size farmers and larger farmers. In this country about 200,000 to 300,000 farmers produce most of the food that we eat, and the rest are small- and medium-size farmers who are very committed to their communities and very committed to their operations, but many of them have outside sources of income, so [farming] is not their primary occupation.

So we embrace all forms of agriculture, all kinds of production, and all sizes of operations, but I think that there has been a change, and that’s been reflected in our communications and in our programs. It began in 2009 when the president came into office and he was a supporter of the local food movement and Kathleen Merrigan, who helped write the national organic standards, [became] deputy secretary. There was a real effort to break down walls here. We looked across the department and decisions were made and resources were brought to bear, and we are starting to really see a change in perspective in the department.

MF: Would you say that a greater emphasis on local food systems was an Obama mandate?

MH: That was an important component of our mission from the beginning. It began with the White House and the Secretary of Agriculture on down. It really did start almost on day one. In 2009 they formed a committee called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. It was [like a] task force at the time, and now it’s a website, it’s a team, and it’s a way of working more than anything else. It just means that we want to connect people back to their food, and we want to support entrepreneurial-minded folks who want to produce food. We want to help them find the resources to do that.

“We want to connect people back to their food, and we want to support entrepreneurial-minded folks who want to produce food.”

We’ve created all these different tools: There is a “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass; there is a place you can go to search for food hubs; there’s a place you can go to search for farmers markets; you can go to our new farmer website if you’re interested in getting involved in agriculture and it will create an entire curriculum for you and show you where to go to get resources and financing. It’s also changed the way we do things like loans, for instance. We didn’t have an easy loan for lower than $150,000 at one point. We initially offered a $35,000 loan, and now the loan is $50,000. We call it a micro loan. Capital and land are always the two big barriers that anyone who wants to farm runs up against right away. We’ve tried to create programs that are more friendly to younger people especially, those who are just getting started.

MF: What is the thinking behind the Medium project? Is it intended to reach a millennial audience?

MH: One of the things we’ve done this year as we go through this progressive storytelling campaign, is to pick a new focus each month, where we’re talking about the work that we’ve done in a different way. A lot of our channels, to use a communications term, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Medium or our own website or Instagram or YouTube, are going to have content about that specific topic. So we’re trying to be consistent and have message discipline, if you will, and talk about a consistent message all month.

MF: April is all about local food systems, correct?

MH: Yes. You can go to our website and you’ll see a lot of the same content, but what the Medium platform does is it allows us to tell the story in a new way. We don’t have that capability on our website in terms of design and backend [technology]. We can’t design a multimedia package the same way you can on a hyper-blogging platform like Medium provides. We can use audio, video, embed social media conversations, people can comment within the content itself, and it’s a great way to showcase beautiful images.

And it actually helps us to understand how people are engaging with the content. So I know how long people are spending on the page, whether they read the whole thing, which parts they are clicking on, which find most interesting. It’s been helpful to us, as we go along, to make things more responsive.

This month we are going to have interviews with chef José Andrés, Kathleen Merrigan, our former deputy secretary, to talk about the local and regional food movement policy work here at the USDA, a small grocery store owner down in Florida, and then small farmers, younger people especially, who are going to talk about their experiences over the last few years and the challenges they’ve run up against. Also we are also going to look at the expansion of the organic’s market, not only the economic story, but what that means for producers, and how they’ve been able to take advantage of new tools.

MF: Some Medium articles get hundreds of “likes” and comments, but the USDA series only has a handful for each article. Are people engaging with the content? Do you think it’s successful?

MH: I would say that we have anywhere from 75,000 to 210,000 individuals reading those chapters, which is a lot for us. Several hundred more thousand folks are engaging with the content on different platforms, like on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We have a subscription-based newsletter called In Case You Missed It, which had about 140,000 subscribers toward the end of last year and has jumped to almost 210,000 since we launched the Medium project. A lot of that is because we have seen a ton of engagement with the content on the Medium site.

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