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Sorghum Focus: Taking a lesson from John Dutton on TV’s “Yellowstone” may recharge ag’s message to its detractors.

John Duff

December 27, 2021

3 Min Read
Sorghum in field
DUTTON LEADERSHIP: Taking a page from a “Yellowstone” TV script may be the thing to rev up agriculture’s message to its detractors.LeandroHernandez/Getty Images

For as long as I can remember, the world of agricultural advocacy (not policy advocacy, but rather advocacy in the public relations sphere) has centered on empowering farmers to tell their story. While this is a worthy cause, I wonder whether there’s a better way to go about it.

A fundamental shift might not be needed, but could we tweak our message slightly? What about the way in which we talk about the message itself? Could we shift our focus away from storytelling and toward dialogue? Many in the agricultural advocacy world have been suggesting this, and I think they may be onto something.

Lesson from fiction

Like many of you, I’ve enjoyed the hit ranching drama “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner as Montana rancher John Dutton. Growing up on a row crop operation, I can’t speak to how realistic (or unrealistic) the portrayal of ranch life is, but I appreciate seeing something that treats agricultural topics in a different manner than the usual narrative of country bumpkins stuck decades in the past. After all, agriculture is a business. Ranchers aren’t just ranchers; farmers aren’t just farmers.

But in a recent episode, Dutton’s fictional clash with an animal rights activist really got me thinking and gave me a new appreciation for the show. After a protest gone awry, the rancher stares down the protest’s leader by challenging her worldview before seeing her off to jail. Later, he realizes the magnitude of the opportunity in front of him, and bails her out of jail on the condition that she spend an afternoon with him on the Yellowstone Ranch. Reluctantly, she obliges, and the two set out for the ranch in Dutton’s pickup.

Opportunity for conversation

As I write this, the next episode hasn’t aired yet. So, in typical “Yellowstone” fashion, a massive plot twist could turn this storyline on its head. That being said, beyond Dutton’s mention of sorghum, I really appreciated that he saw an opportunity for conversation — and a chance for both sides to learn more about each other’s worldview. Before accepting his invitation, the activist emphasizes there’s nothing he can do or say to change her mind. He agrees, but adds that each might understand the other better after spending an afternoon together.

What if we took the same approach with U.S. agriculture’s adversaries? What if we took the same approach with our customers? Would it matter? Maybe not with those fighting against us, but we could certainly make headway with our customers. And after all, we don’t have a lot to lose. We’ve been lamenting the lost connection between the farmer and the consumer for my entire life. We might as well shift our strategy!

Don’t get me wrong. Telling farmers’ stories and encouraging them to do the same is important. But maybe we should be inviting our customers to tell their stories, too. American agriculture today is focused almost exclusively on sustainability. Our customers want it, and we want to give it to them. We have the perfect opening right in front of us. I certainly wouldn’t recommend following John Dutton’s lead on very much, but I think this is one area where he got it right.

Duff is executive vice president for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @sorghumduff.


About the Author(s)

John Duff

John Duff is founder of Serō Ag Strategies and serves as a consultant to National Sorghum Producers.

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