A good pitcher — better yet, a deep bullpen — is essential for a successful baseball team.

Those aligned against the U.S. pork industry today are throwing hard and fast every day to strike you out. Like some baseball teams, they also have the big budgets to try to get the job done.

Today it’s critical for the pork industry’s well-being that all participants take their pitching duty seriously. “It is just as important to do your public relations chores as it is to do your livestock chores,” says Heidi Vittetoe, with J.W. Vittetoe Pork in  Washington, Iowa.

Vittetoe strongly urges all producers to become active spokespersons for the pork industry. When it comes time for legislative and community hearings, Vittetoe makes this recommendation: “First of all, show up. Politics belongs to the people who show up early in the game. You can’t have impact if you’re not even there.”

Next, be yourself. “Tell people about your life and how hard you work to earn and maintain the trust that consumers put in your product,” Vittetoe says. “People value your integrity. Your message is vital to the pork industry’s well-being and future. No one has the same passion for pork production as you.”

If producers don’t tell their own stories, those who want to put an end to animal agriculture will tell the story. “It’s our job to give the consumer trust so he or she can enjoy pork products without feeling guilty,” Vittetoe says. “Remember, there are groups speaking louder than us and telling consumers why they shouldn’t trust us.”

 Local efforts are often most effective. “Make yourself available to the local Farm Bureau Federation or your state pork producer group,” Vittetoe recommends. “Get on a task force or committee early when issues are being formed or when agendas are being set.”

Reach out and get to know people who think differently from you. “You don’t have to be hostile, just passionate,” she adds.

Among the programs available to help is the National Pork Board’s Operation Main Street. The program provides training in public speaking and presentation skills, as well as assistance in developing actual presentations. Once enrolled, NPB provides participants with updates on topics and current events.

Participants are encouraged to seek out and take advantage of speaking opportunities within their communities. “Operation Main Street gives you the opportunity to get involved. It helps you get organized and even set up engagements,” Vittetoe says.

When you do get an opportunity to speak, start with facts. “Then, tell your story in a way that makes it personal and shows your passion for the industry and the animals,” Vittetoe suggests.

Individuals are important but it also takes a team. “Each one of us needs to step up to the plate and take some responsibility to find a way to tell our story,” says Trent Loos, a spokesperson for animal agriculture and Loos Tales radio program personality. He is frank in his assessment of the threat that activist groups pose. “There are people who don’t like us and are lying about us,” he warns.  “We haven’t explained why we have moved pork production to the modern systems we have in place today.”

Consumers still generally trust you, but that trust is slipping. According to a 2008 Center for Food Integrity survey, involving 2,000 U.S. consumers, the majority see you as being the most responsible for humane treatment of farm animals. They trust you first and most to do right by those animals, but advocacy groups fall in at a close second. The majority of survey respondents also see you as the most responsible for food safety efforts, followed by food companies/processors and then themselves.

“We have a lot more work to do to earn trust,” says Charlie Arnot, CFI’s chief executive officer. “The survey showed that confidence that producers have the same shared values as consumers is five times more important to the consumer than the producer’s technical skills or competency.”

Part of building that trust involves “policing our own industry,” Loos says. “If we see examples of inadequate animal care or improper animal handling, we must stand up and bring it to the attention of the responsible party.”

So there should be no shortage of motivation for pork industry participants to speak out. If you don’t do it, someone else will, and it likely won’t be accurate or truthful. If you pass up an opportunity to address a group, the opening might go to someone with an anti-farming agenda.

“When you see how the message resonates, it gets in your blood,” Vittetoe says. “Every time you speak, you will learn more, and the audience will regard you as increasingly important to the community.”

Not everyone likes public speaking, but it does tend to get easier with experience. If you’re nervous, use a manuscript; there’s nothing wrong with speaking from notes. It helps you feel sure that you’ve covered the points you wanted to make. If in doubt, personal stories are the best material.

It really is time to get off the bench. Seize the opportunities that come your way to strike out the competition. You are the industry’s most valuable player.

Training Camp for Speakers

The National Pork Board’s Operation Main Street program is an extensive public-speaking training program for all pork industry personnel. That means owners, managers, barn workers, allied industry, veterinarians — anyone involved with pork production.

To date, about 600 producers have received training, and participants have scheduled 2,250 presentations. Future presentations are scheduled in 23 states, reaching more than 73,500 people in all.

“The training itself takes about a day and a half,” says Ernie Barnes, NPB’s producer and industry services director. “During the training, we go over current industry information as well as all the tools NPB can provide. We go through several PowerPoint presentations and examples of tools they can use at a speaking engagement.”

As for presentation subject matter, there’s no shortage. “For example, it could focus on pork industry facts and figures or explain the industry’s Code of Ethics,” Barnes says.

To keep participants prepared after their training, they receive updates on emerging issues facing the pork industry. Here are some of the topics addressed.  

  • Pork industry update             
  • Media training
  • Animal well-being                              
  • Antibiotics
  • Producer health                                 
  • Industry structure
  • Environment

After returning home from training, participants don’t typically have problems finding an audience. “Start with whoever will listen,” Barnes advises. “It’s that simple.” He suggests a Rotary Club or Kiwanis meeting, FFA group or county fair commission for starters.

“Once a speaker is trained, we (NPB) try to identify speaking opportunities for him or her within 50 miles or so of where the person lives,” Barnes says.

NPB relies on a Kansas City-based agency to schedule presentations for Operation Main Street trainees. These speaking opportunities are derived from a database of all the Rotarian organizations, Sertoma clubs, Lions, Kiwanis and other similar local organizations, Barnes explains.

Of course, there are other opportunities, such as a county commissioners’ meeting, a high school class or 4-H club.

“We realize what an obligation it is,” Barnes says. “We know that a producer or worker has to shower out of his or her operation, drive to the presentation site, spend the time there and drive home. It takes three to four hours out of a producer’s day to give a 15- or 20-minute talk. But it’s an important commitment.”