There is something refreshing about starting a new year; it’s alive with new prospects and opportunities. Most anything can happen, and it usually does.

Of course, with a new year come new challenges — and, yes, many old ones continue to linger. Challenges can be difficult and overwhelming or they can be positive and evolve into opportunities.

For the year ahead, I have a challenge for the pork industry and animal agriculture. While it might feel overwhelming at first, I believe it can be a tremendous opportunity.

It came to me as I was scanning through cookbooks by celebrity chefs with some of my foodie friends. Since when did chefs become rock stars, I wondered. Admittedly, I like to flip on the FoodNetwork or the Cooking Channel or, better yet, a new season of Top Chef (the only reality TV show that I watch). Even in the National Pork Board’s recent Pork Checkoff Report there was page after page illustrating the influence of today’s celebrity chefs. In reality, not all of those food celebrities are chefs — as Paula Deen told Pork in an interview, “Don’t call me a chef; I’m a cook.”

OK, if chefs (or cooks) can become rock stars, why not farmers? In the trenches, neither is a glamorous job; each requires hard work and skill; both are involved with food and helping us live enjoyable, healthier lives. You may not see yourself in that light, but that needs to change.

So, I’m on a mission. I want 2012 to become the “Year of the Farmer.” It’s too late for 2011 to command that label, but it’s not too late to take charge and plan for 2012. Now with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, there’s even a universal agricultural group in place whose charge is to “enhance consumer trust in U.S. food production.” USFRA also wants to “maintain and enhance farmers’ and ranchers’ freedom to operate in a responsible manner.” Doing that will involve exposure, explanation and trust-building — just the tasks that the “Year of the Farmer” could tackle.

Agriculture talks about putting a face to the farm, but those efforts need to get more serious. We also need to take ownership of things like animal well-being and advancements in environmental efforts, as well as defining sustainability. The fact that modern U.S. agriculture feeds more people, at a lower cost with less fertilizer and pesticides than any time in the past, is a good place to start that definition. Pork producers are raising significantly more pork with fewer sows and less feed, which in turn reduces crop production’s environmental impact. Pigs-per-sow-per-year numbers are up and mortalities are down from years past — both traits reflect advancements in animal care and well-being.

My point here is we should not shy away from these truths, we can’t back down and we can’t just talk to each other. Farmers in general, and pork producers in particular, are doing some amazing things and you deserve rock star status.

I know getting the word out and changing mindsets takes time and money, but don’t be too quick to throw cold water on it; remember, agriculture is filled with great minds.

Unlike celebrity chefs, farmers aren’t likely to get their own TV shows (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given the quality of what most channels offer today). But there are ways to get more exposure. One such example is the Iowa Soybean Association’s campaign, currently underway in New York City.

As of New Year’s Eve, the JumboTron in Times Square started carrying messages about Iowa agriculture. “It Starts in Iowa” is a campaign that emphasizes the “dedication and integrity of Iowa’s farmers and the pride they take in providing safe and nutritious food,” according to ISA.

The 20-by-26-foot CBS JumboTron, which is located just beneath the famous Waterford Crystal New Year’s Eve ball (with millions of eyes focused on it), will feature images of Iowa farm families and scenic vistas 18 times each day through late January. “More than 40 million people will visit this major commercial hub in those 30 days, including nearly 3 million on New Year’s Eve,” notes Aaron Putze, ISA director of external relations. 

Now, I wholeheartedly wish this was a national campaign, but it’s a terrific start, and it can be expanded and replicated. It could prove to be a helpful test run for a larger, U.S. agriculture message, offering valuable data and impact results.

But there’s even more. The featured video will be accessible on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. (Check it out at ItStartsInIowa.com.) Web site visitors can participate in the “Be Our Guest, Be a Farmer” contest, which will run through April 29. Any U.S. citizen, 21 years old or older, living outside of Iowa and not associated with farming can participate. The winner, and three guests, will receive a trip to Iowa in August for guided tours of Iowa crop and livestock farms, take part in some real-world tasks, enjoy home-cooked meals and visit the 2011 Iowa State Fair.

Sure, that’s only four consumers, but the campaign will reach many more, and done right, the media can be enticed to eat it up.

I applaud ISA on this project. It’s creative, innovative, refreshing and I have no doubt it will be successful.

So that’s my challenge and my mission — farmers as rock stars. If chefs can do it, why not farmers? Let’s all work toward making 2012 the “Year of the Farmer.”  P