Bernie Erven is a professor of agricultural economics and Extension specialist at The Ohio State University. His extension and outreach program focuses on topics such as how to hire, train, motivate, compensate and evaluate employees.

Q: How important is a community's perception of a pork producer's business?A: It depends somewhat on the nature and size of the business. Some businesses can be inconspicuous for extended periods of time. Others, by their nature, cannot. Many pork producers fall into the category of conspicuous businesses. For them, the community's perception is critically important. Note that we are talking about perception in the community not facts about the business as known to the producer.

Q: What advantages does a positive public image hold for a producer?
A: A positive image is like a personal reputation – it gives the producer the opportunity to get the benefit of the doubt in dicey situations.

One can imagine an emotional community bank account for each pork producer. The producer makes deposits of good will and positive acts regularly, knowing that at some unknown time, he may need to withdraw from the account to cover doubts, challenges and unfair accusations in the community.

Q: What can a producer do to create a positive image?
A: Most important is to do what is right and fair for the community. Be willing to compromise. Recognize that many in the community are not pork producers. They have much invested in their homes and properties and pork production can affect their quality of life and property values.

Work to develop good personal relations with people in the community to better understand their perspectives.

Invest in the community. Sponsor a baseball team or a 4-H club award at the county fair. Offer a scholarship to a high school graduate planning to study agriculture. Offer another scholarship for a student who wants to study art, music or theatre. This can show that pork producers are broadminded and want to help others.

Start an employee-of-the-year program that results in a feature article in the local newspaper.

Q: What cn a producer do to improve his/her image as an employer?
A: A producer can do many things. Here are a few ideas.

  • Genuinely like and appreciate your employees.
  • Use written job descriptions, and provide thorough training.
  • Show trust, and communicate clearly and often.
  • Compliment employees for a job done well, and celebrate successes.
  • Compensate fairly. Provide exceptional monetary benefits, and extraordinary informal benefits.
  • Promote from within.
  • Make the business family-friendly.

Q: How does that image affect employee recruitment and retention?
A: Highly qualified employees pay careful attention to an employer's image, because they know they have options. Such applicants do their homework. They ask people in the community, veterinarians, salespeople, former employees, current employees and others about an employer's reputation. As for retention, some employees have high expectations and will quickly walk away from an employer who is unfair, doesn't offer career opportunities or has a disagreeable work environment.

Others will stay put and be unhappy without bothering to consider their alternatives. But the same traits that can convince a person to join your staff also can help keep him or her there.

Q: How do you determine which image-building activities are right for your operation or your community?
A: There cannot be a recipe that fits all pork producers. Choice of activities starts with your current reputation, past problems, what other pork producers have experienced, what your employees tell you and what your intuition suggests will work. It is essential to know who your critics are or are likely to become. Don't fall into the trap of believing that this is only a farm vs. non-farm issue.

Building an image is a long-term process. Build good relations with the local media, community leaders, opinion leaders and, of course, close neighbors. When neighbors leave, give them a going away present. When new ones arrive, give them a welcoming present.

Q: Why do some producers isolate themselves from the community?
A: I wish I knew. I also wish we had some data on what does and doesn't work. The traditional agricultural work ethic suggests that farmers are too busy to participate in the community. Some pork producers do a marvelous job in relating to their neighbors, employees and communities. That task is "mission difficult" not "mission impossible."