June 2010

Nine states. More than 50 hours of training farmers and ag organizations on social media. 2 tornado warnings during 15+ hours of driving, topped by 5 severe thunderstorms. Gratitude for the way others in ag welcomed new folks. 15+ flights; 1 diverted, many delayed and two cancelled. Tired vocal cords. And outstanding conversations with close to 200 farmers.  That was my June.

We had great discussions about the necessity of farmers speaking out in a more proactive way. Most people I’ve worked with in the last month agreed agriculture has developed a tendency to be defensive. After all, if you’re backed into a corner, you’re likely to come out fighting, right?   Local food, biotechnology, organic, animal welfare, subsidies, carbon footprint, fuel, etc. are all hot issues that have seemingly put our backs up against a wall.

Rather than looking at this as being put in the corner and constantly defending ourselves, I believe the interest in food and fuel offers an incredible opportunity for agriculture to be a part of the conversation.

1. Listen: How will you connect with a person if you don’t take the time to listen? Groups on Linkedin or Twitter conversations are a great place to listen to folks, even if you don’t agree with them. Listen louder and you’ll get a clear look at societal interests and trends far removed from your driveway. It’s about broadening your horizons, understanding another viewpoint and learning about others. This does not mean you have to agree!

2. Engage: Unlike some folks I met in Missouri that enjoyed collecting friends on Facebook (but not talking to them), you actually have to engage in a real conversation with people – whether you are in person or online.  Look up the definition of conversation: an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.  As you engage with people, you widen the stream of communications, bringing in others and deepening the “trust well.” It’s about connecting on an emotional level.

3. Educate: After you listen and engage, you earn the right to educate. I had a person in Iowa tell me this week that he didn’t want to waste his time on the first two – he just wanted to be able to tell people the facts. That may work in his playbook, but it doesn’t in the majority of communities.  There’s a reason that 460 million people are on Facebook; humans enjoy interfacing with humans. A glimpse into life on the farm with a photo from your phone, perspective from a farm family or a tidbit on how food gets to the grocery store can provide that very human connection. Telling people what you want them to know doesn’t connect at the same level if you don’t have a relationship.

Sometimes we need to realize a question is just a question.  The question doesn’t mean that a consumer is dumb, your neighbor is against your farm, or a mom is questioning how you raise food. The question means the person is opening the doorway for a conversation. Will you slam that door shut by being defensive? Or, will you take the time to listen and engage?

We’ll never be able to earn the right to educate if we only defend. Take the time today to listen and engage – then you’ll be able to educate far more effectively to help people know how deeply you care.

Advanced social media training for farmers. Apply now at http://agchat.org!

Are you adept at adapting? Are your reacting or reaching out? Are you living in 2010 or 1990?  Being adept at reaching out in 2010 looks very different than it did in 1990 (the pre-internet era) . As is the case in any revolution, this means exciting opportunities exist. I believe the 460 million people on Facebook and 50 million tweets per day translate to agriculture’s chance to engage.

Many people reference their birthdate when opportunities around social media are brought up. Let me share a bit of a reality check; thought leadership doesn’t come with a birthyear – nor does the proper mindset to leverage tools that just make sense for farms and ranches.

If you are a person who’s adept at adapting and have reached out to build a community to be an “agvocate”, it may be time to move your skillsets to the next level. Perhaps you have a Facebook, but you’re not sure how to fully use it to share your farm story. Or, you’re on Twitter and have found it interesting, but don’t really “get it.”  There’s been a conference designed just for farmers and ranchers who are ready to move up the technology mindset ladder. The AgChat Foundation just announced an”Agvocacy 2.0 Training Conference in Chicago on August 30-31. The program includes agriculture’s best and brightest in social media, with the training set in a variety of learning formats for 50 selected people. Core areas of interest include:

  • Bridging basic communications with social media
  • Community Building for Twitter and Facebook
  • Extending your community beyond ag
  • Creating effective content for YouTube and blogs

It’s been exciting to watch the program develop; I’m firmly convinced that participants in this inaugural Agvocacy 2.0 Training Conference will walk away with incredible ideas when the noon to noon agenda is complete. Successful social media is about engaging human to human interaction; this conference is an exciting chance to bring top agvocates together to “ideate” around best practices in Facebook, Twitter, blogging, Linkedin and YouTube. It’s about moving your mindset up another level on the agvocacy ladder.  Workshops, roundtables and panel discussions include:

  • Growing your communications skills & understanding of consumer research.
  • Building Message House Diagram: Learn to logically build messages and supporting talking points.
  • Twitter Community Building: Find tools, hashtags, strategy to maximize impact of ag voice on Twitter.
  • Facebook Profiles/Fan Pages/Groups: Maximize farmer understanding of Facebook as a tool to put a face on the plate.
  • Extending beyond ag: Find personal interests, data, lists & best practices to reach beyond traditional ag circles.
  • Burning questions: Personalize your learning by getting the info you need in one-on-one Q&A.
  • Creating Impactful Video: Grow in-depth understanding of tools to create, upload and share videos to agvocate.
  • Building an Effective Blog: Help farmers understand how build, share and monitor an effective blog while finding personal style.
  • Real World Show & Tell: Learn from case studies of SM use to take farm to others.
  • Road map for your action plan to agvocate.

If you’re ready to embrace change and be a part of the conversation for agriculture’s benefit, I’d encourage you to apply at http://agchat.org to tell the AgChat Foundation how you have the mindset to make agriculture matter. You have until July 1. There’s no time like the present!

An open letter to all those concerned and outraged by the Conklin Dairy Farm incident…

Please allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Kathy Swift and I grew up on a dairy farm in northern Virginia.  My parents milked 100 Holstein and Jersey cows and I spent many years in 4-H traveling around to county, state and national shows exhibiting my dairy cattle.  I chose to have a career in agriculture and in 1997, I received my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.  I have been a cattle veterinarian in northern Florida and southern Georgia for the last 13 years.  I would like to take a moment to address the actions in the Conklin Dairy Farm video as a member of the veterinary community.

First of all, I would like to apologize on behalf of the dairy business.  I am terribly sorry that the video has caused many of you to reconsider consuming dairy and beef products.  I am sorry that you had to consider whether all animals were treated this way.  I am sorry that you had to wonder whether the dairy products in your refrigerator were produced by cattle that have been treated humanely and with great care and respect.  If anything good comes out of this incident, it is that the dairy business has made it clear that we will not tolerate such behavior .  It is morally reprehensible and we do not condone it in any way, shape or form.  Period.

There are many organizations claiming to be animal advocates and fighting for the rights and well being of farm animals.  They would have you believe that the agriculture industry has no concern for its animals or their welfare.  They would have you believe that we are not listening to consumers.  They would have you believe that we are not going to change.  I am here to share several facts with you:

The veterinary community continues to learn and educate farmers about proper animal care and animal welfare.    More and more research dollars are spent annually to learn how animals process and react to pain and, more specifically, what we can do improve.  For example, a study was recently done at Kansas State University using thermal imaging as a way to assess animals’ response to pain.  From that information, we can learn how to handle cattle more appropriately and treat them with suitable medications as situations deem necessary.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners recently conducted a survey assessing veterinarians’ use of pain relieving medications in promoting animal welfare and proper animal care.  Currently, only one non steroidal anti inflammatory drug (NSAID) is approved for use in cattle.  More options are needed.  The information collected by this survey will prove valuable in continuing to work with the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical manufacturers to allow us more legal access to medicines.  This will allow farmers, ranchers and veterinarians to enhance animal welfare without risking the safety of the food supply.

Most recently, Kansas State University hosted a Beef Cattle Welfare symposium to scientists, veterinarians and ranchers to discuss current thoughts and needs within the farming community.  Quoting Dan Thomson, DVM, PhD, director of the Beef Cattle Institute at Kansas State University, “(this year) we talked about issues. We talked about confidence in an industry. We know we do a dang good job of raising cattle and we do everything at a very high level. But we want to get better every day. We have more openness, more transparency. We are focusing on the future and outcome- based measures for change.”  Conference speaker, Temple Grandin, PhD, a pioneer in proper cattle handling and animal welfare, spoke about “How to Set Up and Implement an Auditing System”.  She has been instrumental in making positive impacts on how cattle are handled and processed for slaughter.

On a local level, I continue to educate my clients about what they can do improve animal welfare situations on their farms.  I show them how to use a local anesthetic when dehorning calves to prevent pain.  I continue to use a tranquilizer with pain killer activity whenever I am castrating calves.  I educate farmers and ranchers on the appropriate times to use pain relieving medications.  We discuss ways to handle and work with cattle to present them with the least amount of stress.  Animals that are well cared for are much healthier and cost the farm less overall in reduced health care costs and improved efficiency.

On a larger local level, I was asked and actively participated in helping to formulate an animal welfare audit for the regional dairy farm milk cooperative.  This audit consisted of a series of questions addressing animal housing, veterinary care, nutrition, milking machine and milking parlor maintenance, calf and heifer care, and personnel training and education.  By March 2010, all members of the milk cooperative had been audited by a veterinarian and achieved a passing score of 90 percent or above.  (Now I realize that you could be skeptical here and say that those passing scores are not valid, but I don’t know of any veterinarian willing to risk his or her license to pass a farm as humanely taking care of their animals if they are not.)  This form was not requested by any organization.  It was instead a step taken by the milk cooperative in response to public concern and questions about animal welfare.

The take away message from all this:  agriculture IS listening.

I could go on here, but I will instead encourage you to go straight to the source.  Who didn’t learn at a young age that messages get twisted and misconstrued simply going from one person to the next?  I don’t want you to only listen to me about animal welfare.  Meet the farmers in your community.  I persuade you not to just ask the easy questions, but ask the hard ones too.  The difficult questions are what get good open dialogue started.  You don’t need the filters of animal activist groups; go straight to the source.  Don’t have a farmer close to you?  Contact your state Farm Bureau.  They will be happy to put you in touch with a farmer that you have an interest in learning more about.

Anyone reading this letter is cordially invited to connect with me on twitter @cowartandmore.  I am happy to listen and answer questions.  If I can’t give you an answer, I will be happy to find you someone that can.


Kathy Swift, DVM

Note from MPK: Kathy Swift is a practicing large animal veterinarian who is also a mom and a gifted artist.  She blogs about two of her passions in life:  agriculture and art on her blog, cowartandmore.blogspot.com. I have great admiration for Kathy and would encourage you to connect with her. She’s a great example of agvocacy on and off the farm.