When the “CBS Evening News” called to talk to Dyersville, Iowa, pork producer Dave Kronlage about how farmers need to use antibiotics to make a living, he turned down the interview with Katie Couric—twice.
Eventually, Kronlage decided to go ahead with the interview because he thought he might have a chance to tell the farmer’s side of the story. Unfortunately for the livestock industry, CBS aired less than 50 seconds of Kronlage’s hour-and-a-half interview as part of a segment in early February 2010.
Dave Warner, communications director for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), believes a change in the way the media reports news is partly to blame for this.
“I think that reporters don’t report the news—they’re trying to make it, and they have an agenda,” Warner says. “The more controversial the issue, the more likely the reporter is taking a side. What they should be doing is presenting the two sides and getting a quote from each.
But that’s not happening.”
Warner points to the increasing number of books that have been published in the past two years about food and how livestock and poultry are raised, along with issues of organic, sustainable and local production. Niche grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, cater to natural and organic products, and many mainstream grocery stores offer antibiotic-free sections for meat and organic produce. Diversification in agriculture is fine, Warner says, but we can’t feed the world or even this country on organic and local production alone.
“I think that right now in the United States, and probably throughout the whole world, there are so many different factions out there who are misinformed and have no tie to farmers other than the groceries they buy at the store,” Kronlage says. “Because of that, they look at farmers as big business, and it seems like now the sentiment is against all big business.”
Joe Cornely, spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, agrees with Kronlage that there
is a strong disconnect between consumer and farmer.
“As people get farther removed from understanding food production, they are much more susceptible to suggestions about the mechanics of feeding the world,” Cornely says.
Educating Others. Some in the industry are pointing to the top—the Barack Obama administration—to say a lesson in feeding the country needs to start there.
“We need to educate Capitol Hill staffers because a lot of them don’t come from agricultural backgrounds,” says Bethany Shively, who was formerly with the National Cattle-men’s Beef Association and now is communications director for the National Association of Conservation Districts. “It is important to go in and talk to them and tell them why we need tools like antibiotics to have healthy cattle, which are the foundation of a healthy food supply.”
Warner, of NPPC, believes there is a population at USDA and within the administration who do a pretty good job working on behalf of the nation’s pork producers, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. But it’s a small population.
“We had a joint meeting with the USDA and U.S. Department of Justice on competition in ag and looked at all different segments,” Warner says. “Some staff and some consultants sat down with Department of Justice staff, and they didn’t know anything about production ag.”
One of the first questions the Department of Justice staff asked was why farmers give hormones to pigs. “That’s illegal. We don’t give hormones to pigs,” Warner says. "Overall, one of the issues we need to deal with is to explain to everyone what we do and why we do it. People don’t know where their food is coming from."
Others suggest that farmers need to do their fair share when it comes to educating themselves and communicating a positive message. Mike Smith, vice president for content at Food Chain Communications and editor of www.truthinfood.com, says his website was started in 2009 as a way to look at misconceptions about the agriculture industry.
To Smith, it’s not just about farmers getting their positive message out and educating their neighbors; it’s also about educating themselves.
“You hear people in ag say consumers are three generations removed from the farm. On the flip side, today’s farmers are so removed from the thinking at liberal arts universities and they likewise don’t understand those people,” Smith points out. “There’s an equal obligation on our part to understand that side and why they believe what they believe about the food system.”
So how is that done? Smith suggests farmers should learn to think like the opposition.
“To win the game, we need to learn to tell the story in the terms that the people working against us are telling theirs,” Smith says.
He adds that those in the opposition not only have large budgets and loud voices but also often find a way to spotlight tragedies, such as the MRSA cases on the CBS report.
MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of Staph. infection, but MRSA bacteria are antibiotic-resistant. There is a livestock form of MRSA (strain 398) that, while not transmitted as easily between people, has been found in some who have close contact with livestock.
Even though livestock workers’ MRSA cases can’t always be tied to their work surroundings, the cases are used as a scare tactic that is then tied to the disease’s resistance to human antibiotics. Smith suggests that in the absence of an explanation for suffering and tragedy, some people become paralyzed with fear of the unknown.
“We need to understand that when we’ve come to a point where a mother 500 miles away from us doesn’t want to buy hamburger at the grocery store because she’s afraid it will put the life of her child at risk, no amount of scientific quality assurance will help her because that kind of fear is emotional,” Smith says. “Our showing that mother the science will never get her over her concern.”
Scott Hurd, associate professor of veterinary sciences at Iowa State University and former USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, says the scare tactics of some of the anti-agriculture groups involve comparing the way antibiotics are used on a farm to the way they are used on children.
“In a situation where there is a large family and one child is exposed to strep throat, the doctor almost always wants to see the child so the infection doesn’t spread to the rest of the family,” Hurd says. “Unfortunately, policymakers and public health officials don’t understand what it takes to grow food. They think every little pig has to be treated the same way every little kid does.”
Tell Your Story. Smith believes the way to get producers, agricultural associations and farm advocacy groups back on the right communication track is through good old-fashioned storytelling. He says the need for passionate, articulate people who believe in the ethics of what they do and who can explain what they do to the consumer is greater now than ever before.
Fortunately, in production agriculture there are authentic farmers with authentic stories, but Smith feels they have somehow lost the ability to communicate that authenticity.
“We as farmers need to understand why we are right to do what we do,” Smith says. “I don’t mean whether it’s safe, but rather that we need to answer if it is ethically right to use antibiotics.
“We have all the science that says it’s safe and effective, but we haven’t thought the question through to whether it’s ethically correct. In every problem production ag is facing, we need to answer that question and figure it out for ourselves.”
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation announced in the spring of 2009 the creation of the Center for Food and Animal Issues as a way to tell its story. The spark for the Center’s formation came as the state organization’s staff and board of trustees followed pork, poultry and veal housing debates in states such as Florida and Arizona and, most recently, California’s Proposition 2, which banned the use of gestation crates, veal crates and laying hen cages. The debates and successful ballot issue were backed mainly by the Humane Society of the United States.
Part of the Center’s job is to counter anti-ag agendas and reach out to those who agree there is a role for animals in today’s society. Among the values backed by the Center are the beliefs that people should remain free to choose what is the proper use of animals, that all animals should be treated humanely and that decisions about animal care should be made by appropriate parties.
With aid from the Center, Cornely encourages farmers to speak up.
“It’s not the nature of farmers to stand up and say ‘look at me.’ They have traditionally relied on paid mouthpieces,” Cornely explains. “The reality is we need their authentic voices. It’s one thing for a media relations person to speak, but when it comes directly from farmers living it every day, it carries weight.”
Kronlage admits he works hard to get his farmer message out and talk to people who think differently about agriculture. “We wish we didn’t have to spend time defending our jobs,
we wish we could just be out farming, but we can’t ignore what is going on around us,” Kronlage says.
Ag Groups Fight Back
As production agriculture continues to receive negative media attention, just about all of its factions, including the beef, pork and corn industries, are creating their own rebuttals.
Take, for example, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which created a one-page informational handout explaining the problematic nature of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009, introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). In an effort to educate lawmakers about the judicious use of antibiotics, NCBA coordinated two briefings this past February to address why and how antibiotics are used in the livestock industry. About 250 people attended the events.
The National Pork Board is also fighting the bill, encouraging its members to send their inquires to the national office. The organization shared talking points and addressed current issues on the website www.FactsAboutPork.com.
In addition to working directly with lawmakers, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is educating producers, giving them tips on what to say to state and federal lawmakers and emphasizing the three most important facts to share with reporters. NPPC has run ads in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, showcasing farm families that raise pigs to demonstrate that they use animal health products responsibly, making the right decisions on a daily basis.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) set the record straight this past March by distributing press releases and fact sheets after the release of the documentary Food, Inc., which was nominated for an Oscar. NCGA pointed out that the movie contains “factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations about America’s farmers and food suppliers.”
Speak Up or Put Up
“For far too long, those of us in agriculture have stood by while certain factions in this country have flat-out lied about who we are and what we are about,” says Troy Hadrick, a fifth-generation rancher from north-central South Dakota. “We do not have the luxury of assuming that people know the real truth about agriculture. Each and every one of us in agriculture has a fantastic and positive story to tell.”
Hadrick and his wife, Stacy, are remarkably experienced in dealing with consumers and the media considering their young agricultural careers. When a reporter came to their farm and misrepresented their operation, they realized the best way to combat negativity toward agriculture was to tell their own story. “No one can dispute your own story. It is yours. But for too long, those of us in agriculture have been letting someone else do the talking for us,” Hadrick says.
As a result, the couple formed Advocates for Ag to teach farmers how to tell their story and share facts about agriculture. Read their blog at www.AdvocatesForAg.com.
You can hear Troy and Stacy Hadrick speak at the Tomorrow’s Top Producer event, aimed at producers 35 and under, on Jan. 25, 2011. To register for the event, visit www.TopProducerSeminar.com.
Top Producer, December 2010