Commentary: Be proactive, not reactive in winning food fights

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Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Mike Barnett, Director of Publications for the Texas Farm Bureau Federation, and published on the Texas Agriculture Talks web site.

Get your back up. Mix it up and fight those who use agriculture as a whipping boy.

That was the battle plan advocated by American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman in 2010 during his annual address to the membership in Seattle. I dubbed him the Mad Prophet of Agriculture back then.

President Stallman has mellowed a bit. And so has the tune sung by the organization and others in battling the myths and lies perpetrated about what we do.

The problem in the past, I think, was that agriculture reacted as a cornered animal when an animal welfare, food safety or environmental issue blew up. We played defense against every charge and mistruth launched against us, giving our customers reasons for doubt.

The stage has changed, as Stallman duly noted in this year’s address. There are consumers–our customers–hungry for information about the food they eat. Others will put their dogs in the fight and fill that void if farmers and ranchers stay silent.

It’s a kinder, gentler approach that can be summed up in three words.

Proactive, not reactive.

It’s not about engaging activist crazies in fire fights where everyone comes back bloodied. We can reduce their clamor by building a wall of trust with our customers. It’s as simple as talking with them on an ongoing basis, joining them in conversations about food and addressing their concerns.

Here’s Stallman’s advice:

• Build bridges with people influential in the food community, who drive opinions and are willing to engage in a conversation about food.
• Meet customers on their own turf and invite them to ours. Answer all concerns they have about food, whether the issues seem real to us or not.
• Talk about our desire to continually improve sustainability, quality and safety on the farm.
• Tell your personal story about how you use fewer resources to produce more, and let them know how you care for your land and animals.
• Be transparent. It builds trust. Share values with your customers.

To move public opinion… to counter the activists… “We must open our doors–and maybe more importantly, open our minds–to consumers and their perspectives about food and agriculture,” Stallman said.

Sage advice, President Stallman. Let’s get to work.

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Pennsylvania  |  January, 15, 2013 at 02:49 PM

Be careful how you open your doors and to whom. You could be the next victim of a slimy gotcha video clipped and pasted together by some anti-farm group. We farmers have everything to be proud of. We actually produce the abundant safe affordable food those fanatic whackos only rant about producing in their imaginary world. We farmers have nothing to hide but we have everything to protect from raving lunatics who would wantonly destroy us. I think we should keep working to expose the hypocrisy of donation mills like HSUS and the rest. Let them argue away the truth of their fraudulent agendas if they can. The quality safety and availability of our food will continue to speak for itself long after the fairy dust has fallen from their overpriced boutique specialties.

PA  |  January, 17, 2013 at 03:14 PM

Your advice is good, Nancy. As much as it is important to engage the public in discussions about food production - one needs to be extremely careful who they open their doors to. We work very hard to take excellent care of our cattle and farm, but we no longer welcome just anyone to our farm due to a local "concerned citizens group" that has wreaked havoc in our community against modern animal agriculture. It is a shame that one has to close their doors to the general public because a few people would be unscrupulous and intentionally harmful to promote their cause. This also creates a sense that you have something to hide - which we don't, but letting just anyone access to your farm operation means you may have a target painted on your back - photos can be doctored or staged - we have already had the group produce false photos of another farm in the township. So for us, the policy is reach out to most consumers, educate where you can, be selective who you allow access to your farm and always watch your back. I have had great interaction with the public at fairs, shows and even the grocery store but its tough to undo the damage created by the fear-mongering agenda of the environmental and animal rights activists.


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