Most consumers have never been on a dairy, but they readily toss around terms like factory farms, GMOs and antibiotics in milk.
And you’ve heard their questions: "How do we know your cows are happy?" "Why are the cows so thin?" "Why do you take the baby calves away from their mothers so soon?" "Why do you feed all that GMO feed to your cows?" "What about all those hormones and antibiotics in milk?"
To address the stigma that many consumers attach to dairying, an educational seminar today at World Dairy Expo helped dairy producers address the challenge with finesse.
"How to Handle Difficult Questions from Consumers and Make a Difference for Dairy" offered ways for dairy producers to respond to misconceptions, concerns and curiosity about their operations. Led by Stan Erwine, a vice president with Dairy Management Inc., the seminar also included direction from Pennsylvania dairy producer Marilyn Hershey, Wisconsin dairy producer Tracy Loos and Wisconsin dairy student Amanda Hintz.
"Consumers want to know that you care," Erwine said. "Values are more important to them than competency."
He pointed out that 97% of U.S. dairies are family-owned. And it shouldn’t surprise people that the look of dairies has changed over the years – hardware and grocery stores no longer look the same either. The values of caring for the land and animals remain strong in American agriculture – and consumers should hear that from farmers.
"Those messages all help remove the ‘factory farm’ stigma,’" Erwine said.
Values matter to consumers, said Hershey. "People care about people, not numbers," she said.
That means dairy producers should translate their responses into values-based messages. Among the pieces of advice Erwine, Hershey and the team offered:
• Don’t lead with science. "Science collides with emotions," Erwine said.
• Create a simple, strong introduction that communicates who you are and what you stand for.
• Show and tell what you do with on-farm examples. Tell a story.
• Use science – not moral justification -- as validation or verification.
• Share your values.
• Be memorable and repeatable – but don’t talk too much.
When the heat is on with someone who’s more hostile than friendly, these techniques will help diffuse difficult questions (they might also work at a family holiday meal):
• Be a strong listener. When there are conflicting opinions, it’s easy to ignore what the other person is saying. Don’t automatically set a tone that indicates, "I’m right and you’re wrong."
• Ask questions. That demonstrates an interest in the speaker’s thoughts and shows you’re trying to understand the basis of their assumptions or attitudes. You’re also showing courtesy, reinforcing confidence and gaining respect and trust.
• Make sure you heard what they said. Repeat back to them what you heard in your own words. It lets them know you are listening.
• Find common ground. It may not change an opinion but it’s the first step toward being heard. It can also lead to more dialogue and problem-solving.
• State your principles. They can help you connect and they tell a story.
• Break the rhythm. If an adversarial questioner asks increasingly volatile questions, you can say, "Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture." This diffuses the situation and takes the emotional edge off a heated exchange.
• Transparency increases trust.
• Check out these websites for more ways to talk to consumers: dairygood.org and dairyfarmingtoday.org.
With their short training course still sinking in, audience members were asked to offer three "pillars" of facts about their own dairy operations. Two producers in the audience responded with flying colors. They spoke of their focus on cow comfort and care, how they work closely with veterinarians and nutritionists to ensure their cows have quality feed and bedding. They added that cow comfort is important because that translates into more milk from cows. They said good early calf care is essential, since those babies grow up to be cow-girls that we depend on for their milk-making capabilities.
Their responses were impressively sincere, clear and sensible. I wish more consumers could have been in that room today. The take-away here seems pretty clear: When you’re confronted with questions about your dairy business, it’s smarter to address them than avoid them. You can make a difference for your dairy – and your industry.