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Monmouth College’s Wiswell-Robeson Lecturer urges ag industry to do a better job telling its story

Duane Bonifer
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Dean Kim Kidwell delivers the third-annual Wiswell-Robeson Lecture.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – The agriculture industry needs to do a better job telling its story.

That was one of the messages University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Dean Kim Kidwell delivered Monday night at Monmouth College.

Kidwell gave Monmouth’s third-annual Wiswell-Robeson Lecture before a crowd of more than 150 in the College’s Dahl Chapel and Auditorium.

“When you think about food, it’s one of the most intimate relationships we have in our lives,” she said. “The whole landscape around food is changing now. We used to eat food just for nourishment, but now we actually think of food as a prescription for health. ... Everything we eat has an impact on how we feel.”

Because of the growing influence that Generation Z consumers have on the food industry, Kidwell said that “food is becoming a much more personalized experience.”

“The food industry, especially moms, are kind of rising up against (candy and chips) and saying, ‘I want to feed good things to my kids. I don’t want to have these preservatives. I want to have healthy things that support them in growing well,’” she said.

Kidwell, who is the first woman to lead Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, said that the agriculture industry needs to engage in more dialogues with those who consume its products.

“I think it’s really important that we start having open conversations about what’s happening in the food space in the world today,” she said.

Kidwell said that another reason agriculture needs to do a better job telling its story is because most consumers no longer live on a farm and they also don’t realize the sector’s depth and breadth. Kidwell said that only about 20 percent of consumers are aware of where their food comes from or how it is produced. They also don’t realize how many jobs are connected to the ag industry.

“We’ve got to draw more of the best and the brightest into agriculture,” Kidwell said. “People don’t understand how high-tech it is and how exciting it is. When people see drones flying around fields, I don’t think they know that’s computer science interfacing with agriculture. When people say farming is boring, they haven’t been inside a combine that’s like being inside a video game ... It’s fascinating to see how much high technology is used in agriculture these days, and we just don’t sell it well.”

One example of telling agriculture’s story was drawn from the introduction of Kidwell by Monmouth economics professor Ken McMillan, who has known Kidwell for four decades. He announced that Monmouth’s county, Warren County, has the highest corn yield in the state.

“You’ve got to give that a shout out,” said Kidwell to applause from the Dahl Chapel and Auditorium audience. “That’s a big deal!”

The Wiswell-Robeson Lecture was founded in 2016, thanks to a gift from 1960 Monmouth graduate Jeanne Gittings Robeson of Monmouth. The lecture’s purpose is to annually feature a speaker from the agriculture community who explores issues, challenges and innovations in the industry.

Robeson and her late husband, Don Robeson, who was a 1954 Monmouth graduate, operated their farm in Warren County.