Your business and industry have come under attack in recent years, by animal rights’, environmental and “family farm” activists who have used misinformation and outright lies to gain exposure and supporters. Agriculture has tended to sit back quietly, thinking the truth will win out in the end. Hopefully truth will win, but that will only happen if you start promoting agriculture with the same passion that the activists use to promote their causes.

Most producers and people involved in agriculture tend to believe actions speak louder than words, and many aren’t comfortable in a spokesperson’s role.

“A lot of people in the industry want to wish the activists away, but that’s not going to happen,” says Trent Loos, sixth generation farmer and pro-agriculture activist. “We must stand up and point out what is and is not right; what does and does not represent our industry.”

For so long, producers have taken for granted that people need and want to eat; that they wouldn’t question where or how their food was developed. You may not have felt the need to speak up for agriculture, though you may have been frustrated by the activists’ messages.

“Producers haven’t spoken up because of time constraints, independent personalities and a reluctance to
acknowledge that there might be a perception problem with agriculture,” says Michele Payn-Knoper, a professional agricultural speaker and consultant.

Farmers are the third most trusted profession, according to a variety of surveys. You rank just behind teachers and the medical profession. A study from the Animal Agriculture Alliance, shows that consumers trust veterinarians first and producers second, when it comes to information about their food and how animals are raised.

“Most consumers feel the industry is doing the right things, they just want to be reassured,” says Kay Johnson, AAA vice president. “Our surveys show animal welfare is not now a big issue, but as activists continue to spread their messages it will become more important. It’s critical that the industry doesn’t hide from issues. For example, we need to talk about gestation crates, why we use them and the science behind them.”

It then becomes a matter of going to the right place, with the right message. First, identify where you can make the biggest impact. Most people are most effective at the grassroots level, says Payn-Knoper.

You can make an impact by writing letters to the editor, contacting government officials, volunteering your farm for school or governmental tours. Also, don’t disregard the impact of talking to friends from the city about agriculture. Start in areas with which you’re most comfortable. For example if you’re not comfortable dealing with the media, don’t feel like you have to give interviews or work in that arena.

Payn-Knoper says it can take as few as seven letters from constituents to a legislator to move an issue to a priority level.

“You have to realize that there is a problem, and then you have to do something about it,” she says. 

Payn-Knoper offers these six steps to make anyone a champion of agriculture.

1. Who: Identify your target audience. Who can make a difference in agriculture’s cause? Media, teachers, kids, consumers and elected officials are all examples of key influencers.

2. What: Find your audience’s hot buttons. What’s important to them? What gets them excited?Don’t assume that you know; ask some questions. A hot button may seem unrelated to your cause and you may not agree with what you hear, but listen carefully.

3. Why: Determine how agriculture connects with the target audience’s hot buttons. For example, an American Farm Bureau Federation/-
Altria Group study showed that 91 percent of consumers surveyed were concerned about protecting groundwater from contaminants. So a good message would be to explain how biotechnology or modern farming practices actually reduce chemical use.

4. How: Follow a proven process to develop long-lasting relationships. Do you buy into an idea from someone you don’t trust? Here’s a process that works in various situations: Build a rapport, identify needs by asking questions and offer a solution, motivate to action, overcome objections, then get their commitment.

5. Where: Strategize where you can reach your target audience. For example, if you’re targeting local media, decide to host a tour that includes stops at your facilities and another farm, focus on educating participants about food production and processing techniques. Give them facts and a hands-on experience.

6. When: One hour, once a week. Add “championing agriculture” to your to-do list. Consider it an opportunity to plant seeds for the future of our industry. If you don’t make a point to invest one hour a week speaking out for agriculture, what will the results be?

The activists have preyed on fear, and the industry’s reluctance to speak against their rhetoric. The time has come to fight back with the truth,
science and an emotional argument promoting agriculture. (See accompaning story on page 18 and Profit Tip on page 34.) Or you can take the easy way, and sit back quietly – and pay the consequences.  

Real-World Experience

When your farm is within sight of Chicago’s urban sprawl, you better use every opportunity to educate people and speak out about agriculture’s benefits.

John Kellogg owns a 1,400-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, with the sow barns located near Yorkville, Ill. For 13 years, he has participated in a continuing education bus tour for Chicago-area teachers to learn first-hand about modern agriculture. He’s also represented the pork industry through interviews with CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

“Many consumers have no personal experience on the farm,” says Kellogg. “Agriculture needs to be more proactive, because there’s such a gap between what consumers think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing.”

To help close those gaps, Kellogg talks to teachers about computerized records, artificial insemination, food safety, environmental issues and the people skills needed to run a modern pork operation. He says participants are interested in everything from artificial insemination and composting dead hog carcasses to the environmental controls used in the buildings. But by far the most popular event is watching the sows farrow baby pigs, which has caused some participants to be late getting to the complimentary pork chop dinner.

The program also includes visiting a USDA inspection center at O’Hare International Airport, a seed processing plant, several other agri-businesses and some class work. The teachers are required to write lesson plans on what they have learned from the trip.

One sign of the program’s success is that it gets nearly three times as many people signing up each year as there are openings, says Kellogg.

Educating the educators has the effect of throwing a stone in the pond – the ripples may be felt a lot further than you might imagine. Kellogg has actually been stopped on the street by teachers who participated in the program, and students who have told him they now understand more about agriculture because they learned about it in school. That’s a significant improvement over taking your chances that an uninformed teacher might be educating future consumers about animal agriculture.

Maintaining Consumer Confidence

The Animal Agriculture Alliance has developed a list of seven steps that anyone in the ag industry can use to maintain consumer assurance and correct animal rights activists’ misinformation.

  • Ensure that your house is in order: Implement industry-developed animal-care guidelines within your operation. Ensure that all employees and managers responsible for animal care, are trained accordingly. Become certified by a credible third party to provide customers with assurances, and to prepare for on-farm audits.
  • Develop a company or farm policy statement on animal care, health and nutrition. Designate a single spokesperson for your business – someone who knows the issues and has been trained to deal with media.
  • Educate employees about company services and policies. Employees are representatives and spokespeople for your farm in the community. Conduct meetings with employees to discuss what the operation does, its commitment to animal care, its contributions to the community, and so forth. Provide information on issues and concerns that may surface. Implement an open-door policy. If employees hear or see anything out of line they need to feel comfortable discussing or reporting it.
  • Strengthen communications with customers. Make sure that they know you and your standards for animal care, environmental practices and food safety. Then, if questions arise, they will feel comfortable calling you.
  • Become involved in public policy. Talk to your legislators so they understand your business and know that they can call you when they have questions about industry practices, before making decisions.
  • Seize opportunities to talk about what you do: Focus on issues that are important to consumers. Talk about science in consumer-friendly terms. Talk about the benefits of certain production practices for the animals – especially those that the activists attack. Become trained in media interaction.
  • Participate in partnerships to obtain and disseminate information. Get involved with ag-based groups that address these issues. 

Fight Feeling with Feeling

Many of you have probably listened to activist groups and wondered why on earth anyone would follow such a message? The answer is simple. Activists make arguments that tug at people’s emotions, while the agricultural industry has tried to rely on facts and science.

“Some of the activists’ messages are empathetic – many people identify with their pets as a part of the family,” says Kay Johnson, vice president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “The disconnect that the general public has with agriculture allows activists to play on those feelings.”

Agricultural advocates need to remember that while facts might support their cause, most people form opinions based on emotions. “The ag industry is extremely good at using science, but it’s not as good at showing how it relates to average consumers,” says consultant Michele Payn-Knoper, founder of Cause Matters. “We need to start speaking consumers’ language rather than our own.”

Payn-Knoper uses an example of biotechnology and crops. She suggests making the arguments that the technology was researched for decades and proven safe, but also that it created crops requiring fewer pesticides, herbicides and in some cases produces more nutritious food.

Another point to make is that if regulations and opposition continue, it could drive food production outside U.S. borders. “How vulnerable would the United States be if we needed to get much of our food from Brazil, Argentina or some other country?” says Trent Loos, pro-agriculture activist. “It’s a matter of national security, as well as food safety.”

Johnson points to the United Kingdom as an example where animal-welfare concerns won out over science. Veal production was banned, but consumer demand for the meat remained the same, so today the U.K. imports all of its veal. “Long term, consumers could lose,” she says. “Products they take for granted, might become more expensive and hard to find.”

Countering all the emotional arguments the activists make sounds like a great plan, but it can be challenging. To make an emotional argument Payn-Knoper suggests that you keep the following points in mind:

  • Share your passion, while showing compassion.
  • Have your facts straight. Use reliable sources.
  • Take the time to listen to the other side, even if you don’t agree with it.
  • Know who you are talking to and understand their concerns and interests. “Ask questions, don’t make assumptions. So often we assume we know what consumers are thinking.”

Today there are four times as many activists groups as there were a decade ago, she adds. If this alarming trend continues, it could strap you with costly regulations. If you continue to wait for someone else to speak up on behalf of U.S. agriculture, you’re playing into the activists’ hands.

“There may only be 1.5 percent of the population involved in production agriculture, but if you consider all the related agribusiness and food outlets, it’s the nation’s largest employer,” says Payn-Knoper.

“Consumers want to be reassured,” says Johnson. “They don’t necessarily want all the details, but they want to know that farmers and ranchers care, and that they raise safe, wholesome products.”