consumer trust


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.

Dairy People Care!

A common theme of the animal rights movement is to promote that today’s farms are full of dirty dark secrets.  I grew up on a dairy farm, live on a farm and have had the privilege of being on hundreds of dairy farms around the world – including some around Plain City, Ohio. The crap you see on the heinous videos from animal rights activists, like the one being released by Mercy For Animals about a Ohio dairy farm, is not what’s happening on every farm. Based upon personal experience on the dairy side of agriculture, I’d like to offer a bit of a perspective check on the “dark secrets of farms.”

  • Calf Care: Dairy calves are given colostrum in their first couple of hours of life to be sure they’re healthy and because farmers want to give them the best care possible. Calves are not thrown around, nor are they mistreated – farm families often care for calves the same way they do for their children (and sometimes better). Calves are typically given their own home to thrive in and provided a formulated diet, along with a vaccination program comparable to your child’s. Some groups would lead you to believe that it’s cruel to take a baby calf from the mother, but this is done for the health of both the calf and the cow. If you’ve ever breast-fed, you don’t need a lot of explanation about what a 100 pound calf can do to mammary tissue.
  • Healthcare Handling: Cattle are typically put in “chutes” for treatments to keep both the animals and humans safe. This does NOT involve beating an animal, poking it with metal or prodding it cruelly. Nose rings are sometimes used to calm an animal who’s throwing its head around (similar to arm restraints for a human). For example, if I see a cow is going to hurt herself in a chute, I try to restrain her with the halter first to calm her down and then, if necessary, will use the nose ring (which does not puncture the nasal tissue).  It’s not  a torture device, it’s a safety device.  If a cow doesn’t like a needle, hoof trimmer, veterinarian examination or other necessary practices to keep her healthy, we still have an obligation to keep her as calm as possible. That’s not always pretty with 1500+ pounds, but people who have worked with animals their whole life have special techniques (mine is talking to the animal a lot, if you can imagine!).
  • Milking Parlor: The parlor is where cows come to do their business – give milk – and they are usually happy to do so. Today’s technology means milking equipment is streamlined to cow comfort and milking efficiency (which typically happens 2-3x daily). Cows are habit driven; once in a routine, will come to be milked in roughly the same groupings, but it can be a bit of a challenge to get a new one into the right habits. However, I’ve yet to meet a dairy farmer who uses a pitchfork to stick a cow in the parlor. If cows are beaten, they don’t release their milk, which kind of defeats the purpose of the parlor, don’t you think?
  • Drugs: Cows are NOT pumped full of drugs. ALL of the milk you buy from the grocery store is antibiotic free; it’s been tested about 9 times between the cow and you.  Any label that suggests that some milk has in it antibiotics is false (if it’s sold as Grade A).  And all milk has hormones – it always has. Udders are not pumped full of hormones nor are calves fed hormones. Hormones exist in living things. Check estrogen levels in soybeans and cabbage if you don’t believe me.
  • Nutrition: Did you have a dietitian plan out your last meal to meet your energy needs, adapt your meal plan to changing seasons, check your manure and then look at your body condition? Cows do. Professional nutritionists evaluate all the components of a cow’s diet, test the available ingredients and provide a complete “ration” (think casserole with all the best ingredients) to help dairy farmers keep their cows healthy. Most cattle eat better than I do!

Above all, please know these videos represent a few bad actors and are an insult to those of us who have worked with cattle since we were old enough to be in the barn. Are all babysitters or teachers bad because there are a few who abuse children?  No – and the same holds true for farmers. Regardless of whether the video was staged or real, the individuals who treated animals with such disrespect should have been reported to the authorities immediately. Agriculture has a responsibility to be very clear that such behavior is unacceptable.

Dairy farmers don’t milk cows because they plan to get rich; they do it out of love for the cows and the dairy business. It’s a tough job that requires 365 days of work – and the bottom has fallen out of the milk market in the last couple of years. They’re not asking for your sympathy – they just want you know that animal rights videos don’t represent how much their family cares. And, speaking as a dairy person, seeing such cruelty makes me want to cry and keeps me up at night. Thankfully, I can go out to our barn and down the road to where our cows are milked to see animals that are treated with respect. If you haven’t had the same opportunity , I’d encourage you to visit a modern day farm – and talk with the family working to care for the animals.

“Agvocacy” is the heart and soul of National Agriculture Week. A farmer in Ohio, Mike Haley, coined the “agvocate” term on Twitter a few months ago. It brings together ‘agriculture’ and ‘advocate’ into a singular term that’s representative of the action needed. Agvocates from across the country shared their stores at the Cause Matters Corp. National Ag Week party – you’ll see they’re people just like you. (more…)

Corporate agriculture. Land profiteers. Factory farms. CAFOs.  Uncaring. Pundits of “big agriculture” espouse the downfall of our food system while pointing to greedy corporations.  After all, they’re looking to only get rich from subsidies, have no pride in the craft of agriculture, abuse animals in horrific conditions and pour chemicals on the land in an effort to make more money. Right? (more…)

Sing a little song about your daily work, even when it smells . Make your message fun. Upload to YouTube from your smart phone. Share it with the world.  A family dairy farmer down in Alabama has developed quite a following for his work and his cows doing just that.  Will Gilmer, also known as “The Singing Dairyman”, creates “Moo Tube Minutes” to educate people how their milk is produced and give a voice to dairy farmers. (more…)

Conversations to connect the farm gate & consumer plate

The advent of social media has brought the diversity of food opinions to clear light. I listen and participate in hundreds of conversations daily with people around the world. It’s beneficial to converse about food, its’ origins, the people who produce it and how the agrifood system works. It’s also immensely frustrating to see how polarizing food and farming have become. (more…)

Like many pet lovers, it’s hard for me to resist a fuzzy little kitten or puppy dog playing. I was the official kitten rescuer on our farm and saved the lives of several by bottle feeding them. Many of my childhood memories center around animals – trying to persuade the Saint Bernard to pull me on a sled, hours in the hay mow with cats and fun with calves. I also remember going to local animal shelters and feeling terrible for the animals who had no home. So I “get” the attraction to campaigns run by the Humane Society of the United States – after all, who wants to see these cute little creatures suffer? (more…)

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