Meet the Conference and Annual Meeting keynote speaker Ewell Smith

Ewell Smith, keynote speaker

We are excited to host our third Conference and Annual Meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at the Kewaunee County Fairgrounds in Luxemburg. We have an action-packed agenda that will keep you engaged and you’ll go home with new knowledge and ideas to implement on your farm.

Our keynote speaker is Ewell Smith, former executive director of Gulf Seafood Institute and Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. His presentation is entitled, “Owning your story: How northeast Wisconsin farmers can learn from the Louisiana seafood industry.”

Ewell Smith has an extensive back-ground in crisis management.

How can you relate to farmers in northeastern Wisconsin?

When I transitioned from forestry to seafood, I learned the issues are nearly identical, just a different commodity. In fact, my first chairman at the seafood board saw the value of having me go through the LSU Ag Leadership Development Program. I was the only seafood person in the class of 28 farmers for two years. Most recently, I started as the executive director for the North Carolina Loggers Association. Again, the issues are nearly identical and also are the solutions.

What parallel can be drawn between the Louisiana seafood crisis and what livestock farmers are facing?
Our commodities are oftentimes under attack by environmentalists. The best defense dealing with this is a strong offence on two fronts for a food commodity to help address foolish attacks and tough markets.

First, we want to own our story and steer the narrative as best as possible turning up the good news on our efforts and the impact our business has on the local economies. That helps to deflect the environmentalists when they show up. Second, we want to get innovative finding more value-added uses and markets for our commodity products.

Farmers repeatedly hear “tell your story” these days. What is the essence of that phrase?
We’re made for relationships. People relate to people, not to an industry. By owning our story, telling our story while being honest, transparent and willing to share our vulnerabilities, we build genuine relationships based on trust to help each other.

What is the biggest mistake a company or organization makes in its storytelling? Tell us about a mistake you made.

Not owning an issue right upfront to get ahead of the media. Not being brutally honest, not being transparent and not operating with integrity further compound the issue…
Mistake I made – being too trusting assuming the person who was going to help me tell a story will do it with integrity. I’ve had a story turned inside out. I’ve been burned twice even with all my experience. My enthusiasm will sometimes blind me… so I need outside perspective and I need to be better at listening to that perspective when my gut warns me. We all have blind spots others can see for us. We need to ask for that help from the right person or persons.

What is a valuable lesson you learned from your experiences in the oil spill and hurricane crises?
As harsh as the crisis is while going through it, you learn to turn to your faith. You learn you will find your greatest strength at your weakest moment. You learn a crisis presents incredible opportunities. You learn you must embrace change. You learn you will come out stronger. I’ve seen this go both ways…some perish hanging onto what was with an iron fist while others will thrive seeing the opportunities.

The dairy community is suffering through an economic crisis and spirits are down. How does optimism fit into to what you convey to audiences?
During the height of the oil spill, we had no idea if there would ever be a chance to even come back. Fear ran rampant. At the peak of fear running rampant, I literally printed these five words in the order below on a large poster board and hung it on our office wall for all (staff, board members and visitors) to see boldly every day:
It starts with our mindset. Mindset’s everything.

What would you ask PPF members to be thinking about when they come to your presentation?
To come into the presentation with the intention to find one element of my presentation that person may find useful and then the most important part – to take action on that one item. Then build on that

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