Why letters to the editor can effectively educate consumers
Newspapers in many urban areas are struggling to survive. Yet in rural communities they remain influential. There are more than 8,400 non-daily and daily papers in the U.S. with collective circulation of 65.5 million, according to data published by the National Newspaper Association.
As producers seek to educate their neighbors, consumers and lawmakers about production agriculture, the paper can be an effective vehicle for sharing overlooked perspectives.
In Oregon, dairy producer Joe Jenck of Tillamook recently responded to criticism farmers faced after the Tillamook County Creamery Association purchased a local golf course. Some local residents and tourists saw it as a profit-driven decision by the creamery association, which Jenck owns along with nearly 90 other dairy farmers in the region.
“It’s discouraging for me that the perception of the creamery is we do not support or give back to our local community,” Jenck wrote in a letter to his local paper, The Tillamook Headlight Herald. “For example, in the last year we committed $200,000 to the Tillamook Bay Community College, gave $35,000 to the Nestucca Valley Athletic Supporters, over $15,000 to our Tillamook County 4-H Fair Booth, and $16,000 in scholarships to students going on to college, plus too many others to list.”
Many people also don’t realize the fact Tillamook Creamery is an economic staple, Jenck says. The business will soon do $1 billion in sales per year, he says, and it brings 1 million visitors to the area annually, making it one of the top three tourist attractions in the state.
“I got many phone calls thanking me after I did it,” Jenck points out. “A lot of people said, ‘I had no idea.’ I wasn’t trying to be spiteful. A lot of times, people need to be educated so they understand what actually goes on.”
Although you won’t reach everyone in print, newspaper editors often upload those letters to the internet, where you can share content you’ve written on your farm website or social media. There’s never been a better time to give ag a voice.
How to Write a Letter in Response to Criticism of Farming
Introduction (100 words)
- A brief explanation of why you are writing, e.g. “In the April 1 issue of the paper, James Smith wrote that farmers are ….”
- A clear statement that articulates why your point of view is different, e.g. “As a fourth-generation rancher, Mr. Smith’s comments concern me because ….”
- A loss proposition showing the logical conclusion of the original writer’s argument, e.g. “Without cattle ranchers, our rural communities would lose numerous family businesses and engaged leaders ....”
Middle (200 words)
- Facts and figures addressing the points you have outlined earlier in your response to the letter-writer, e.g. confronting allegations of factory farms, steroids and profit-driven business motives.
- Empathy throughout to show you recognize where the writer is coming from; you understand these issues are concerning; and the emotion you bring in support of agriculture is also valid.
- At least one personal story or anecdote that sheds accurate light on one or more of the myths outlined in the critical letter.
Conclusion (100 words)
- A brief acknowledgment of the original writer and the validity of his or her concerns, e.g. “Mr. Smith raises important concerns about how food is produced for our families ....”
- A summary statement that reminds the reader of the points you made to clarify how your profession works, e.g. “Beef is produced by family farms that care for animals.”
- A gain proposition summarizing your argument, e.g. “When we support our ranchers, we are a stronger community.”
Top College Communicators Share Their Best Letters Via Agchat Program
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, and her letter is printed below. Our runner-up letter came from Emily Hanlin, a rhetoric and public communication student at Northern Illinois University. Read her letter at TopProducer-Online.com.
In the April 1 edition of The Standard, a letter to the editor by John Doe argued cattle ranching is cruel and unethical. It stated all cattle ranches are “factory farms” where animals are packed into small spaces and rarely see daylight. Doe stated ranchers and farmers inject their livestock with growth steroids in order to make a profit. As an agricultural communications major and someone involved in the agriculture industry, Doe’s arguments concern me because they present a misleading picture of our food system. Without cattle ranchers and farmers, our food system would lack access to a source of nutritious protein that keeps our families healthy. Our communities would lose family businesses and leaders.
I understand Mr. Doe’s concern for food safety and animal health. I share those concerns. It is very important to me that the food I put on my table to feed my family is safe and healthy. I do everything within my power to ensure they live happy, healthy lives. In addition, I care about the health and wellness of the animals that my family and other members of our community eat. Cattle production and cattle health has always been important to me. I raised my first bottle calf at five years old and built a small cattle herd as an FFA member. Cattle ranchers care about the health and welfare of their animals in part because it is directly related to their profitability. Cattle and ranchers alike lose when animals are treated poorly. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration closely monitors our beef to ensure it contains safe levels of hormones—most of which occur naturally.
Mr. Doe’s comments represent the perfect opportunity to continue an important local conversation about food safety and the ethics of food production. These issues should concern every person who steps into a grocery store. A majority of U.S. residents are far removed from farms, so information about safe and responsible farming can get lost in translation. I encourage you to have conversations with local ranchers and learn about their production practices. By doing so, you will be supporting family businesses that provide each of us with safe, healthy and locally sourced food. —Alyssa Rockers