EAST SYRACUSE, NY — There is no doubt there are unscrupulous individuals and groups who have an ax to grind with the farming industry. On the other hand, there are other individuals who are plainly uninformed of acceptable farming methods, yet still curious about how their food is produced.
Whether you, as a farmer, happen to be confronted by a group that means deliberate harm or whether you run into the latter, you need a plan of action to deal with them.
This was the basis of a vital discussion at the New York Farm Bureau’s Animal Welfare Conference on Oct. 29 at the Doubletree by Hilton in Syracuse.
Featured speaker Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, gave a presentation in which she stressed the need to improve communications among farmers, ranchers, processors, food retailers and consumers mainly by using social media and public appearances.
The afternoon session of the conference was devoted to a brief lecture by Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, followed by an hour-long discussion by an animal care issues panel.
Smith said the mission of the coalition is to connect all of those various groups, “to bring everyone to the table” for discussion; to identify stakeholders and emerging issues and engage influencers who can arm the farmers with valuable information, and to protect the agricultural industry from lies and misinformation.
The Animal Agriculture Coalition tracks the activities of certain groups, e.g. PETA, the ASPCA, Mercy For Animals and some of their sister humane education groups, who AAC claimed is targeting and attempting to harm the agriculture industry. These groups are well endowed financially and cannot be underestimated.
“We are battling a big machine,” said Smith. “They are very sophisticated and they’re not going to stop.”
These groups spend millions of dollars a year to bring attention to their cause and undermine the agricultural and farming industry by influencing consumer trust and confidence, she explained.
They might put pressure on restaurants, supermarkets, retailers and food manufacturers; file lawsuits and start public protests; disseminate videos obtained illegally from so-called factory farms, and promote food and health “scares.”
She observed how some of these people will become stockholders and “activists in the boardroom” by obtaining seats on the boards of major corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Sodexho and Target to force change.
These groups will buy advertising on major media and create ballot initiatives that impact farmers. They might engage in misinformation campaigns to inflame consumers against “animal abuse” in the agricultural industry.
AAC constantly monitors the websites of these organizations. “It’s valuable to our members to understand their strategy,” Smith explained.
The coalition’s board of directors, meanwhile, consists of such industry leaders as Burger Health, the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Merck Animal Health.
But Smith said the Animal Agriculture Coalition also needs “grassroots support” from local farmers to provide “counter-arguments.” The use of social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and LinkedIn shows that farmers are being “proactive” in their communications with the outside world.
During her discussion titled, “Communication With the Younger Consumers About Animal Agriculture,” Grandin noted that millennials are more likely than previous generations to say they are concerned about where their food comes from.
Nearly three-quarters of the millennials who responded to a poll said they were likely to pay more for “local” food. A slight majority of the young people said they were willing to pay more for products coming from farms that are “organic” and promise “humane” treatment of animals.
Paired with that is the statistic that 21 percent of millennials get their primary news directly from social media. Grandin said young people tend to trust social media more than scientific fact, especially if they can find shared values with the source.
“In the future, young consumers’ decisions will be more focused on values,” Grandin pointed out. “Agriculture must become completely transparent… and will need to change some of their current practices.”
Even McDonald’s has made an effort to become more transparent for its customers by doing inspections of some 70,000 meat producers and scoring them, Grandin added.
The Animal Agriculture Coalition therefore recommends that farmers engage with their customers, become familiar with neighbors (of all ages), local legislators, business leaders, public safety/law enforcement officials and members of the media. Make sure these influencers know a farmer will be available to advise them if they hear complaints about local agricultural and animal practices.
Should someone browsing your webpage on the Internet raise questions about animal care handling on your farm? Will a customer who visits your farm find any indication of environmental problems? Should the farmer consider conducting an undercover audit of his or her own farm employees?
That last point led Smith to discuss how farm employees treat the animals when no one is watching, whether farm employees interact with the community and how they appear to outsiders.
She described a program called, “See It? Stop It!” and said farm owners, managers and employers have a responsibility to ensure the health and welfare of their animals and that their employees comply with a code of conduct.