EAST SYRACUSE, NY — If farmers wish to become transparent with the consumer and the public about their activities, it can be as easy as setting up a farm profile on Facebook.
On the other hand, opening up these lines of communication can come with risks and unwanted attention.
How the farmers balance their need to market their products and engage in dialogue with the public versus maintaining their privacy was a major topic at the New York Farm Bureau’s Animal Welfare Symposium on Oct. 29 at the Doubletree by Hilton.
Titled “Opening the Barn Door: Communicating With the Public About Your Animals and Your Business,” the conference featured speakers from the Animal Agriculture Coalition; a panel of farmers, veterinarians and animal experts discussing animal care issues; and the always-popular Colorado State University professor, Dr. Temple Grandin.
The acclaimed author of several books on animal behavior and the keynote speaker at the conference, Grandin gave concrete examples of how she has experienced the double-edged sword of notoriety, both acclaim and criticism from her readers.
Grandin was sitting in the audience during a presentation, “How Farmers Can Communicate With the Public” by the first speaker at the seminar, Jessica Ziehm, executive director, New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, when she felt compelled to speak up.
Ziehm showed a map of the population density of the east coast of the U.S. and pointed out how those population centers are so far removed from agricultural areas that farmers should expect to educate local consumers about the farming occupation.
She displayed a chart that represented the amount of public support for animal agriculture. The farmers (“we”) are on the far left of the statistical graph, while “activists” are at the extreme right.
The bulk of respondents on the arc were in the middle of the pack between the two points of view. “Most consumers are on the fence,” said Ziehm. “They have no opinion (on agriculture), so who are they going to believe, them or us?”
Farmers can take control of the picture and shape public opinion, in part, by using social media. Facebook, websites and blogs can represent the public face of your farm and allows farmers to become more “transparent” with consumers.
Grandin then stood up and related her own experiences. “When you get bashed by the activists, you need to be opening the door (to discussion), not shutting the door because when you close the door you’re implying you’re guilty,” she commented.
She suggested that farmers should not necessarily ignore their critics. “If we hide and don’t answer the tough questions,” she said, it will be more difficult for consumers in general to gain insights into the business of farming.
Continuing her presentation, Ziehm reminded farmers to “own (your) actions. Tell (the public) everything we do on our farms is for the health and betterment of our animals, our employees, the environment, our products and our community.”
She concurred with Grandin that farmers should not be afraid to answer questions from outsiders.
Ziehm cited the recent Great New York State Fair in which a quarter-million visitors from all over the state, the nation and even from foreign countries, came face to face with local dairy farmers and dozens of cows at the extremely-popular dairy cow birthing center.
Many visitors came prepared with questions such as, “Why do you separate the calves at birth? Why do you dock the cows’ tails? Why do you use antibiotics?” Ziehm said she and her fellow farmers did not hesitate to answer these and other questions in a positive, respectful manner.
“We need to stand up and own our actions rather than have others talking for us,” she told attendees, a reference to the distribution of undercover videos of harmful tactics used on some farms. “We need to be proud of it, justify it and be transparent. If you’re not proud of it, then stop doing it.”
“Speak with passion and get personal,” said Ziehm. “We love being farmers. We love the land. We love being caretakers of our animals. I love being a farmer because I feel I’m doing something important. I’m raising my kids on the farm and they’re learning important life lessons. Someday the farm will be theirs and I want to leave it in better shape than I found it.”
Farmers should introduce themselves to their neighbors first and then their community. “Talk about your kids, your animals, your challenges, whatever you’re comfortable with,” Ziehm said. “Share your milestones. Open yourself up to criticism — and to compliments.”
“It’s all about shared values,” she added. “They’re probably parents. They might have a job they’re passionate about.” But remember, this must be a two-way conversation. “We have two ears for a reason. Don’t forget to listen.”
As a public figure and prolific author of books on the humane treatment of animals, Grandin has unwittingly become a target. In a separate interview, she disclosed she has been attacked verbally online.
“People have been writing really bad things on my Facebook page,” she said. “But I don’t take down the site. You need to allow (some) dissent. Some of it is totally vulgar and I take that down. If you allow garbage, you’re only going to get more of it, but civil dissent stays up.”
She has even received frightening threats. “Some have said they would like to kill me,” she said. Grandin admitted she can’t ignore direct threats, and she takes them seriously enough to report them to the FBI and the police.
So farmers, admittedly, face a challenge of using Facebook and other social media when it brings criticism. “You need to control your anger, and sort out your emotions,” Grandin explained.
“What I do is write down my answer by hand first before I post it online. I might not send it until hours later because once you do post it, you can’t get it back.”
Ziehm pointed out that the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition staffers and website offer tips to farmers on how to respond to questions or criticism from the public “in a calm tone; don’t get defensive. When you get negative comments, ask that person two questions before you answer. Try to find shared values.”