At the AgChat Collegiate Congress held in April in St. Louis, college students pursuing careers in agriculture learned tactics for communicating with the public about the industry. Top Producer invited them to share their best example of a letter to the editor in response to a fictional yet plausible scenario: a letter in their local paper from someone critical of cattle production practices. The winning submission, selected by a panel of Farm Journal Media editors, comes from Alyssa Rockers. She is an agricultural communications student at Missouri State University. Our runner-up letter came from Emily Hanlin, a rhetoric and public communication student at Northern Illinois University. Emily's letter appears below. You can read Alyssa's letter here.
In the April 1 edition of the Northern Star, James Smith wrote a letter to the editor about cattle ranchers. Among other comments, Mr. Smith stated ranchers operate factory farms, inject animals with steroids and make animal-health decisions primarily to boost profits. I grew up on a cattle ranch, and Mr. Smith’s claims alarmed me because there is a disconnect between his comments and the realities of beef production. The best source of information about the industry lies with ranchers. Without their efforts, our access to an array of beef products and the resulting economic benefits would be nonexistent.
Nearly one in four Illinois farms raises beef cattle, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The vast majority of ranches and farms in Illinois, big or small, are no different than any other businesses. They are owned by families and have benefited from technology that ensures better care for livestock and a safer food-supply chain.
Since the 1980s, the federal Beef Quality Assurance program has closely monitored beef-production practices. Consumers have been concerned about the injections ranchers give their cattle for decades, and farmers have responded with production practices that place a premium on animal welfare. In fact, as of Jan. 1, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now oversees the use of antibiotics that are medically significant to humans in livestock feed. Ranchers are prohibited from using these medications to promote cattle growth. On my farm, for example, we only administer antibiotics to treat, prevent and control diseases. We also carefully follow the FDA-enforced withdrawal periods that antibiotics require. Ranchers ensure greater profitability by adopting safe production practices rather than by mistreating animals in a misguided effort to boost efficiency.
I am grateful Mr. Smith took the time to write. He is not alone in his concerns. In an industry as vital as agriculture, it is not always easy to trust the less than 2% of the population that grows the food, fuel and fiber we use every day. Yet it is important to remember that farmers have families and that they are community members who care about the products they produce. Consumer trust in farmers and an understanding of how food is produced is vital to ensure our local food supply continues to thrive.