Taking the public’s pulse on agriculture, natural resources


Messages matter. That’s why the University of Florida’s Center for Public Issues Education in Agriculture and Natural Resources has worked for the past three years to better understand how media, the general public and policymakers perceive the messages they hear from the agriculture and natural resources sector.

The organization, known as thePIECenter, has conducted a range of research to gauge people’s perceptions when they hear a phrase, see a picture or read a headline about farms, ranches, animals, plants and more. It’s been an eye-opening experience, says Dr. Tracy Irani, a UF professor and the center’s development director.

For example, the center found that agricultural communicators should consider including more children and families when crafting messages about producing food and fiber. Research also has shown that the public connects and relates positively to traditional farmer and agriculture images. And researchers learned that terms such as “best management practices” can actually evoke negative impressions based on a person’s perceptions of other industries.

Dr. Tracy Irani, PIE Center development director, addresses participants in a recent outreach event.

The center has shared its findings with industry members through events, its website, articles and social media. It has partnered with a number of agricultural organizations and associations, including the Agriculture Institute of Florida, Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association, Florida Farm Bureau and others.

The center completed seven projects in 2010, including testing agriculture messaging with focus groups, readership surveys for agricultural trade association publications, communications audits and membership surveys.

In 2011, the number of completed projects almost tripled, jumping to 19. They included additional membership surveys and communications audits for trade groups, plus a content analysis of online agricultural campaigns, more focus groups, and leadership surveys regarding agricultural and environmental messaging.

So far in 2012, five projects have been completed. One project conducted message framing research using focus groups. The study, which has earned attention from around the country, was commissioned by the Ag Institute. Findings were unveiled in a spring “Lunch and Learn” workshop where industry members learned how messages are perceived and were encouraged to develop their own messages.

Irani said she is very proud of her research team’s work and their most recent accomplishments.

Another project is a social media toolkit, which thePIECenterjust rolled out. The online set of educational tools is designed to help industry organizations communicate more effectively in the world of Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets. A series of videos and worksheets were released earlier this month on how to take advantage of social media opportunities.

The center has also just completed its first regional research project. Working with the Southern Group of State Foresters, researchers conducted a comprehensive content analysis and communications evaluation of 15 states’ strategic plans that were developed under a stipulation of the last farm bill.

Celery fields in South Florida are one part of the state's agriculture story.

“We’ve analyzed thousands of pages and were able to present findings and strategic recommendations on their planning and communications efforts at their annual meeting,” Irani said.

The researchers are also working on various grant projects, including a National Institute of Health grant looking at community effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They held a regional community forum in late April to discuss their findings.

A major milestone occurred this spring, when the Legislature voted to allocate state funds for the center.

“With new recurring funds from the state, we know thePIECenterwill be producing practical and applicable research to meet industry communication needs for a long time,” Irani said. “This will let us add additional faculty, secure existing staff and add some additional support staff to our team.”

Projects in the works reflect the center’s steady expansion into the many facets of agriculture, natural resources and the environment.

As part of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Gulf Safe campaign, the center will assess consumer perceptions and test potential message strategies regardingFloridaseafood.

And in response to recent research showing that Florida consumers support the “locally grown” message but aren’t quite sure what that means, a two-year project will measure the economic impact of the state’s specialty crop industry, identify appealing messages and provide recommendations that emphasize messages that should be used to brand Florida-grown fresh produce as a local choice.

To learn more about the ongoing activities of the PIECenter, visit its website www.thepiecenter.com and subscribe to its blog to hear the latest news.

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