Shaking the hand that feeds you
Michele Payn-Knoper is a champion for agriculture. The certified speaking professional travels the United States and internationally, helping farmers communicate more effectively about the agrifood industry, while helping consumers understand what's happening with food production.
The Spartan alumna knows firsthand the realities and risks of farm life. In addition to now living on a farm in Indiana, she grew up on a family farm in Michigan that was eventually lost.
Since earning degrees in animal science and agriculture and natural resources communications from MSU, Payn-Knoper has dedicated her life to creating a better understanding between food producers and consumers. With 98.5 percent of the U.S. population living in nonfarm settings, her expertise and advocacy are needed more than ever.
"My passion is agriculture," says Payn-Knoper. "My passion is being able to help people understand where their food comes from and the wonderful people on the other side of the food plate that are called farmers."
The drive for agriculture that I have comes from the family farm that I grew up on. And it also comes from losing that family farm and the pain that is associated with that.
I work as a professional speaker, and my goal in life is to connect the farm gate and consumer plate. And what that means is basically being able to bring some common sense to food and help farmers be able to communicate about what they do today.
I travel internationally, primarily across North America, but I do love international work as well. The reality is in the United States is that 98.5 percent of the population is not on a farm.
A farm today does look very different than it did 20 years ago. That doesn’t mean that the people are any different. It just means that everything has progressed in the agrifood business just as it has in medicine and technology and other arenas in life. I strongly urge people to actually get on a farm and talk to the farmers if you want to know what’s happening with your food production.
When you look at studies across the United States now, typically people are two to three or even four generations removed from a farm. You would probably find that these people work extraordinarily hard and have a work ethic unlike any other segment of the population today. You will find very few entrepreneurs like you find in agriculture. One, they have to be creative, and secondly, people that farm manage far more risks and assets than what most people could imagine is even possible. So really, when you step back and you look at the culture in America and the sense of freedom in the entrepreneurship, American agriculture represents that at its heart and soul, in my opinion.
As a professional speaker, I certainly have done a lot of work to try to develop my skill sets, but more importantly to me is really about connecting with people and understanding what their needs are, not just people in agriculture that I serve but also what are consumers interested in. So the way that I went from being an advocate to teaching people to do that was primarily through experience and being able to reach out as an educator and trying to have the professional skill sets in order to do that most effectively.
Farmers do get social media. They do get how to use it. We are continuing the outreach work to help more and more understand that, but technology is a huge part of the farm whether it is a smart phone or whether it is biotechnology.
The reality is that farmers are not outspoken. So what I really do is, one, to try to help the farmers speak out more effectively and to be able to help people understand where their food comes from.
I fell in love with Michigan State when I was 12 years old and I was at 4-H Exploration Days. And I deepened my love affair with every FFA convention that I attended. I am not sure that I will ever forget standing on the stage at the Municipal Auditorium as an FFA member, a freshman, that had actually competed in the Greenhand speaking contest. And that was the day that I knew that I wanted to be a professional speaker someday.
So I have wonderful memories at Michigan State from a very young age. I met my husband there as a student. We are both very proud alums of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Michigan State really teaches you about perseverance and following your passion. My passion is agriculture. My passion is being able to help people understand where their food comes from and the wonderful people on the other side of the food plate that are called farmers.
Farming is a great job to have. There are few places that you will ever find that are a better place to raise a family. My husband and I very proud to raise our daughter on a farm, albeit a small family farm.
So our barn is very proudly green and white. And we made sure that it was very close to the dark green Michigan State. And our house is also quite green and white as well. So we are very proud Spartans. And we wear it outside the house as well as inside, which, of course, all of our friends love here in Indiana. They like to say it is 4-H colors, but it is not. It is Michigan State colors.