Shay Myers is the recipient of the 2022 Ag Connection award from Oregon Aglink. The presentation will take place on November 18 at our Denim and Diamonds Annual Awards dinner and auction courtesy of title sponsor Wilco and presenting sponsor Columbia Bank.
Farmers and ranchers face all sorts of challenges, from unpredictable weather to fuel prices that depend on global markets and local policies.
Ironically, communicating those challenges can be its own struggle.
Whether professionals in agriculture are nervous about public speaking or feel like they can never find the right words, the individual who can get the message across to their intended audience deserves some special recognition. At Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, Shay Myers understands that communication needs to extend beyond influencing a person to pick your onion over another–although that is still part of the equation.
Myers is a third-generation farmer and serves as the CEO of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, Oregon. He’s part of the ten households involved in the vertically-integrated business that produces onions, asparagus, sweet potatoes, watermelon, and mint along the Oregon-Idaho border. “We try to find a seat for everyone on the bus,” he says of the large family operation. “It’s really important we find something that someone wants to do, and enjoys doing, and is capable of doing.”
For Myers, that “seat on the bus” turned out to be connecting with people, whether they’re buying onions by the pound at the grocery store or by the ton from an office in Chicago.
Finding His Niche
Myers graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Business from Boise State University and originally came back to Owyhee Produce with a position in operations and sales. When a produce buyer from the midwest asked if he could see an onion tree, though, Myers realized the need for agricultural literacy was deeper than just educating consumers about food at the grocery store.
He had already ventured into creating material aimed at professionals within agriculture: “only other farmers or produce buyers maybe would have appreciated the content I was creating. It wasn’t for the general public to be educated about where their food comes from.”
The question about the onion tree was a catalyst, says Myers. “That was the moment I said “I’ve got to stop being an onion expert, I’ve gotta stop talking about the minutiae of onions. I was still focused on educating the buyer, not the average consumer, but I realized they had a lot more in common. The mom or the dad going to the grocery store to buy their produce was, much of the time, the same person who was the produce buyer working in a Chicago or Los Angeles or Phoenix office.”
Love for LinkedIn
Most people know LinkedIn as a site for professional networking, but the platform’s later expansion into the business of sharing and re-sharing posts from its users has allowed some of them to establish and then engage with a large following. All told, Myers actually prefers LinkedIn to Facebook and Instagram.
“I love my LinkedIn audience,” says Myers. “I’ve got about seventeen thousand followers on LinkedIn and that was where I began.” Some of his followers fall into the “general consumer” category – someone who is curious about agriculture but not part of the chain between field and stores – but the overall user base and purpose of LinkedIn has maintained a level of professionalism that seems unusual at this point.
“The commentary and dialogue on LinkedIn is educational. While people will critique you, they justify their positions and are looking to learn something, a greater depth of knowledge, or to see if their position is right, to strengthen their position or to change their position. You can have beautiful dialogue back and forth on LinkedIn, I love that.”
Return on Investment?
Whereas LinkedIn might encourage good behavior, other social media can lead people to heated interactions. TikTok is no exception, especially with the algorithm that rewards engagement, whether it’s from legitimate curiosity or a desire to court controversy.
More eyes on a post can mean more opportunities to reach an audience, even when some portion of that audience can be antagonistic. Says Myers, “lots of what I’m trying to do there is educate the consumer, but I’m trying to educate them on complete disinformation that they get. A lot of people are regurgitating the opinions that they have, and they are very VERY willing to attack everything.” But where a dialogue on LinkedIn can lead to common ground or at least mutual respect, the comments on TikTok don’t always yield a big return on investment due to trolls more interested in creating an emotional reaction than expanding their knowledge.
So why does Myers stay on TikTok? Even if he doesn’t go down every rabbit hole in the comments, he knows that he is getting through to a big audience. “For every troll there is, there are ten times as many people who have been positively impacted,” says Myers. “I’ve had hundreds of ag teachers say “Hey I use your content all the time! Keep doing it!” He’s also been a hit with homeschoolers and parents who want to watch educational videos together with their children outside of a classroom.
Leveraging His Voice
As a result of predictably boosting viral content, TikTok has become the preferred source for many newsrooms around the country when they are looking to report on something already generating responses. Posting a video to his four hundred thousand followers on TikTok could lead to it going viral and getting several million views. At that point, a video about onions and food prices might lead to a reporter calling with more questions and the Associated Press or a broadcasting company picks it up next.
“TikTok has opened the opportunities for national news appearances much moreso than LinkedIn or Instagram,” says Myers. Being on the evening news or featured on a national news feed is not an end in itself, though.
“It’s not [just] the press appearances,” he clarifies. “It’s the opportunity that that creates to talk about agriculture and what it really is” in a context that transcends the original post. While some people who spotted his video on TikTok may be the same people who see him later on the news, he says, “I’m not just a guy on TikTok at that point.” When the traditional media has picked up your video and asked you more questions, says Myers, “it justifies or supports your position as an industry expert or someone who is trying to educate the masses on their point of view and the nuances of agriculture.”
Talking About Tough Topics
Getting people to understand the complicated science and business behind the food at the grocery store is a big task, and even Myers recognizes that there are places where his experience and knowledge is more relevant than others.
His videos on the relationship between his fields and the empty shelves during a hurricane in Florida may get a lot of views and even interview requests, for example, but Myers doesn’t consider himself an expert on the supply chain. He might be able to point to the problems that everyday consumers might not see firsthand, and “I can complain about what’s driving me crazy and what’s not working, but I don’t know what the solutions are.”
In other cases, a video on TikTok about asparagus harvest can go viral and open an opportunity to speak about undocumented immigrants and agricultural labor, two things that affect Owyhee Produce just as they do many other farmers. Myers says he wasn’t always ready to discuss immigration, especially with it provoking such strong feelings and political assumptions, but these days he feels confident in letting people know: “We need to fix the process.”
Like many farmer-communicators before him, Myers has ended up speaking in front of legislators at both the state and national level. It made him nervous, especially speaking up against people in his own political party, but he stuck to his guns: “It took me a long time to realize that I was someone who understood immigration and undocumented workers with a depth knowledge that vastly outweighed those who were vocal opponents to those same [immigrants].”
For Myers, at the end of the day, it isn’t about an election or scoring political points. He’s got a business to run, fields that need to be planted and harvested in time to get the produce onto the trucks and out to consumers. His knowledge of agricultural labor, including the wages and benefits that he offers to his own employees, means that he can speak confidently with anyone making assumptions, for better or worse, about how farm workers are treated.
Keeping the Audience in Mind
“We in agriculture need to understand that we do something very important and we’re extremely passionate about it,” says Myers, “but we often look at the people who attack us as hateful when really what they are is missing all of the information.”
The need for agricultural education often gets expressed with the familiar argument about people thinking food comes from the grocery store or that chocolate milk comes from a brown cow. “Okay,” says Myers, “there might be a FEW people who really think that way, but when we talk like that we shut down 80 or 90 percent of the people we need to talk to.”
If that caricatured argument gets repeated too many times on social media, Myers says that viewers will disengage: “They’re going to walk away or scroll away from that video and not listen to anything we have to say.”
Whether a farmer in Oregon wants to try LinkedIn or TikTok, or if they just want a softer approach when discussing agriculture at the grocery checkout line, the advice from Myers makes it clear: “We have to be talking *to* people, and responding *to* their concerns, instead of talking down to them or talking down about them because they see things differently than we do.”
They might not be able to walk a mile in a farmer’s shoes, but thanks to communicators like Myers they can certainly watch more videos to learn about the people behind the produce.
Story by Allison Cloo. Photos courtesy of Shay Myers.