The last time rural American showed up in Beverly Hills was back in the 1960s, when Uncle Jed struck oil, packed up his family and moved to the posh L.A. neighborhood. But this week the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance is back, as part of its mission to engage the public about how their food is produced.
A two-day program, part of "The Food Dialogues," kicked off Wednesday at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in a meeting room down a garden path from the famed Polo Club restaurant. Hollywood and 'Vine:' The Intersection of Pop Culture and Food Production, kicked off with a two-hour panel discussion streamed live on the internet that included representatives from both agriculture and the entertainment industry.
It was a far cry from the usual policy discussion, for sure. But though TV food shows are sometimes more like "Jersey Shore" than Julia Child, the topic is a serious one for producers. Whether it's controversial documentaries like "Food Inc." or a cooking show chef pouring ammonia on hamburger and calling it "pink slime," the business can have a huge impact on the food business.
Still, Hollywood is Hollywood, even to a northern California farmer and rancher like Jeff Fowle, the lone producer on the panel.
"You never get used to it," Fowle laughed, wearing a cowboy hat and boots before getting outfitted with a microphone.
Food, which most Americans took for granted for several generations, emerged as a hot topic in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says celebrity chef and TV host Danny Boone, first as a source of comfort, and then as a point of controversy, thanks to documentaries such as "Food Inc." and "Supersize Me." At the center of the trend are television shows and cable TV, such as the Food Network, whose success is luring other players into the space, such as Nickelodeon and Disney.
"The shows have helped ignite the conversation," says Boone.
Juliet D'Annibale, a director and producer of food shows, agreed: "Food is such a trendy thing right now. People really do care."
While some of the more vocal voices in the animal rights debate pushed the policy pendulum to the extreme, initiatives by industry groups developed solutions. Enhanced housing for poultry helped counter-balance the claims of free range advocates, said Karen Rosa, director of the American Humane Association's film and television unit. "People are interested where there food comes from."
Fowle said farmers need to "conversate" – not just telling the public what they think, but listening, too. "We in agriculture have just as much or more to learn from our customers," says Fowle. Indeed, Fowle made of point of calling them customers, not consumers.
While part of the media's responsibility is to education, it's also a business. Controversy sells, says Boone, and it's easy for a TV show exploit an issue like the recent "Pink Slime" debate. "Panic is easy to start," he said.
"Let's not confuse it with the news," agreed D'Annibale. "It's entertainment. But can it do more? Can it educate the consumer about where their food comes from, how it's raised and who raised it?"
Today's crop of cooking shows are starting to re-involve the younger generation with food, giving them a passion for it, and that's a good thing, said Fowle. "The microwave is the least passionate thing I can think of."
The hay and cattle rancher said his five-year-old watches "Chopped," a cooking competition show, then asks, "'Hey dad, can we have that for dinner tonight?' It's a safe and healthy show to watch with your kids."
Scott Vernon, professor of ag communications at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, agreed. "It affects me every day." His 12-year-old son watches food shows like Primal Chef. "He has a more evolved palate and takes food very seriously," Vernon said.
Size of farms is another issue in the debate. And D'Annibale admitted she thinks big corporations run today's farms. "It's true, I believe it's largely corporations. The uninformed like myself believe that big business is running it."
Fowle noted that anyone talking about efficiency in making a car would believe it's good. But efficiency in agriculture is perceived as bad. Still, he said, size is not the goal – optimizing the operation is. "You can be large, small or anything in between," he said.
Fowle said farmers have no trouble being honest. Being open about what they really do may be more difficult. So, he uses humor in his online posts in a variety of social media, from Facebook to You Tube to Twitter. "I meet up with different people on Facebook than I do on Twitter," he said.
Sitting in the front row of the audience was Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and Chairman of USFRA. Afterward, he said the discussion was important to the typical Midwest farmer, even though corn and soybeans aren't served in celebrity restaurants or featured on cooking shows. A big market for those crops is pork, beef and poultry that is a key ingredient for these shows, for one. And issues over water resources, nutrients, crop protection and biotechnology are all in the debate.
Part of the job for agriculture is correcting mistakes that creep into the media. Today's panel provided a perfect example of that when D'Annibale mentioned the "10-year" Farm Bill several times. Stallman, a veteran of those discussions since the 1985 law, smiled and just held five fingers.
Hollywood And "Vine" continues Thursday with two more panels, including another live streamed discussion. For more information, go to http://www.fooddialogues.com/la-food-dialogues. To watched Wednesday's panel go to http://www.fooddialogues.com/la-food-dialogues-hollywood-vine.