About 20 Alabama farmers learned how to better engage elected officials and consumers during the American Farm Bureau Federation's Joint National Leadership Conference Feb. 8-9 in Phoenix.

Congressional Management Foundation President and CEO Brad Fitch set the tone for the conference in an opening keynote address.

"Your story is important, and the way you tell your story is essential," he said, adding that members of Congress consider a constituent visit six times more effective than a visit by a lobbyist.

Alabama Farmers Federation National Affairs Director Mitt Walker said the research shared by Fitch and others can help farmers be more influential in Washington and at home.

"This conference is held once every two years at the beginning of a new Congress coming into session, and it's a great opportunity for our members and staff to come and talk about the policies that will be considered in this session of Congress and also talk about ways we can be more effective in getting our message across."

About 1,325 farmers from across the nation participated in the event, which was themed "Celebrating Tradition, Embracing Change."

The executive committee of the Federation's state board attended seminars on Feb. 8-9. Members of the State Young Farmers Committee joined them for the second day and stayed in Phoenix following the joint session for the AFBF Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference.

Federation President Jimmy Parnell, who previously served as chairman of the State Young Farmers Committee, said he was glad Alabama's young farmers have a chance to participate in the conference.

"The opportunity to visit with these young farmers from across the United States is invaluable," Parnell said. "During the time I was in the Young Farmers program, that was not available, and I think it was a huge loss for our organization to not have that diversity of opinion and observation of what's going on in this country."

State Young Farmers Committee Vice-Chair Allie Corcoran of Barbour County hopes to use lessons learned at the conference to improve Alabama's programs.

"We hope to meet a bunch of other young farmers and get ideas from their states, and hopefully we can bring their ideas back to Alabama and really strengthen our Young Farmers Committee and our counties," she said.

Federation North Region Vice-President Rex Vaughn said a conference presentation by the Center for Food Integrity and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance highlighted the need for farmers to be "interactive" rather than reactive when talking to consumers.

Needs to be a priority

"Engaging our non-farming community has got to be a priority for us," he said.

Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity said research shows shared values are three to five times more important in building consumer trust in production agriculture than farmers demonstrating competence in how they do their jobs.

"Science tells us if we can do something; society tells us if we should," he said.

Arnot and Melissa Kinch of USFRA encouraged farmers to be more transparent in talking to consumers about how food is produced. They added that farmers sharing personal experiences is more influential than repeating "key messages."

Their research indicated the general public responded most favorably to farmers who talked about a commitment to continued improvement rather than focusing on past accomplishments.

Meanwhile, Fitch urged farmers to share their personal stories with elected officials.

"There has been a 200 to 1,000 percent increase in constituent communication (to members of Congress) in the last decade," Fitch said. "You need to differentiate your interactions (with personal stories.) People out there think members of Congress aren't listening. They're listening so hard they're going deaf."

AFBF President Bob Stallman continued the theme of engagement by comparing the need for farmers to address evolving customer preferences to past accomplishments in the adoption of farm technology.

"We succeed by embracing change," he said.

Stallman discussed the status of Farm Bureau's Centennial Development Project, which is aimed at providing a roadmap for the organization's future.

He also outlined AFBF's priorities for 2013. They include: addressing the United States' deteriorating water infrastructure; passage of a five-year farm bill by September; continuation of policies that encourage the development of renewable fuels; opposition to expansion of the Clean Water Act to include non-navigable waters and additional restrictions on livestock and poultry operations; protecting farmers from tax increases; representing farmers' interests in policy discussions about food safety; and addressing the need for legal agricultural guest workers.

During the conference, participants had the opportunity to participate in breakout seminars and workshops on topics ranging from the farm bill and federal budget to social media and grassroots advocacy.

The closing keynote address was delivered by former U.S. Navy Commander Michael Abrashoff, who shared leadership lessons he developed at age 36 as the most junior commanding officer in the Pacific Fleet.

His stories illustrated the importance of leaders building trust within their organizations by putting others first and rewarding excellence.

"(My goal was to) make every sailor feel like the ship can't operate without them," Abrashoff said.

He challenged Farm Bureau leaders to hold fast to the principles that made the organization strong, while encouraging ideas that could make it better.

"It's okay to lead with values," he said, adding that people will respond because they aren't getting that kind of leadership elsewhere.

During the Young Farmers and Rancher Conference, Auburn University Young Farmers member Anna Leigh Peek will represent Alabama in the Collegiate Discussion Meet.

"It's not a speech, and it's not a debate. It's more of a discussion," Peek said of the competition. "Through this process we're actually supposed to come up with some solutions to some problems that agriculture is currently facing”