by Jennifer Wagester
The New York Animal Agriculture Coalition (NYAAC) strives to empower farmers to engage the public in conversations about animal agriculture and tell their stories firsthand. The coalition, in conjunction with the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council (ADADC) and the United Soybean Board (USB), hosted Farm Tour Workshops on May 20 in Batavia, NY, and May 22 in Fonda, NY. The workshops focused on helping farmers start those conversations through positive farm tour experiences.
Jessica Ziehm, Executive Director for the NYAAC, and Melissa Osgood, Corporate Communications Specialist for the ADADC, facilitated the workshops. Both have agricultural roots and boundless enthusiasm for the agricultural industry. Jessica became the NYAAC executive director in August 2012 after serving 12 years at the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. She grew up on a dairy farm and currently resides in Washington County on her husband’s 600-cow family dairy. Melissa is from Wyoming County and also grew up on a dairy farm. She’s held her role at the ADADC for nine years and especially enjoys working with schools to enhance youth’s understanding of and interest in the agricultural industry.
The Farm Tour Workshops started with introductions. Participants represented several counties and diverse roles in the agricultural industry. Cornell Cooperative Extension educators, dairy farmers, beef producers, county government officials, agricultural event organizers, and industry association members gathered to enhance their communication skills. Some producers had already hosted farm tours, while others were considering it in the future. Those in government-related roles wanted to learn more about engaging decision-makers in tours to better equip them for making decisions that impact producers in their communities.
The workshops continued with a presentation by Jessica Ziehm and Melissa Osgood on how to go about organizing, promoting, and conducting farm tours. The participants were provided with a copy of the presentation along with a CD of the 2013 Farm Tour Tool Kit. The presentation stressed preparation as an important component to success. The timeline for preparing a tour included first identifying the type of tour, who will participate, and what will be accomplished by hosting the tour. Farm tour organizers need to determine their target audiences, develop age appropriate activities, ensure key informational concepts are covered, make the tour fun, and keep everyone safe.
Before the event, tour organizers should send out invitations (with clear directions and recommendations for dress and foot attire) and utilize press releases or other promotional materials for larger tours. As the tour date nears, organizers should try to confirm the number of attendees, arrange for restrooms and first aid services, write a script for all speakers, provide adequate signage, practice the tour ahead of time, conduct a safety check, and prepare for tough questions. Tips for success include setting up different stations with 15-20 minutes of activities, allowing time to transition between activities and answer questions, providing great photo opportunities, and offering snacks that showcase what is grown on the farm. Providing hand washing stations and/or using disposable gloves are also important to maintain participant and farm animal health.
During group discussions, the participants identified organic vs. conventional agriculture, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), environmental stewardship, and use of pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics as the top topics for tough questions. Melissa and Jessica stressed that producers should be honest and prepared to defend the practices that their farms use to grow safe, nutritious food. A variety of producer associations offer educational materials on these issues that help farmers answer questions or direct tour participants to the appropriate educational resources. All agreed it was best to provide the information directly to tour participants than to leave them to search for it on the internet.
Veteran farm tour organizers were on hand to share their experiences. Among them was Penny Heritage, co-chair of the annual Sundae on the Farm in Saratoga County. The event started 18 years ago in an effort to connect the public with agriculture as farm numbers dwindled and residential communities grew. Penny shared what her team members have learned throughout the years as the event has grown from a smaller Breakfast on the Farm to this year’s Sundae on the Farm, which will welcome about 3,500 participants on June 16 at McMahon Thoroughbreds. Penny stresses that successful farm tours are team efforts. Sundae on the Farm is supported by 150-200 volunteers and a variety of local organizations that include the host farm, the host town, local businesses, agricultural organizations, chambers of commerce, and financial sponsors. Penny also encouraged everyone to be flexible and creative. Each year has been better than the last as the planning team adapts to challenges and continuously makes improvements.
Producers interested in hosting farm tours or enhancing their communication activities through newsletters or other events have a strong support network. Jessica Ziehm can be reached at 518-527-3949 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Melissa Osgood can be reached at 315-472-9143 or email@example.com. Both are ready to assist with developing communication strategies and promotional materials. Producers can acquire farm tour signs courtesy of the USB through NYAAC and materials such as coloring books, pencils, informational handouts, milk cartons, etc. through a number of associations including ADADC, Ag & Markets, USDA Statistics, USB, milk cooperatives, and County Cooperative Extension offices. All Farm Tour Workshop participants agreed there are many ways to safely produce wholesome foods and that education is one of the best ways to address consumers’ concerns.