‘… to operate as needed’ is not what’s needed for many farmers

Farm groups, commodity organizations and most ag checkoffs have spent 25 years and billions dollars refining and repeating their modern message: American agriculture is a business and farmers and ranchers are business people.

In the process, cowboys became beef producers and hog farmers became pork producers and a half-million or more of each became no more.

Transitions

While livestock folks were transitioned — there’s a modern word — into the meat industry, corn, wheat, cotton and soybean farmers and became corn producers, soybean producers, cotton producers, wheat producers and, well, producers.

Recently, however, the big “producer” groups behind all these producers discovered most Americans don’t want their eggs, milk, vegetables, steak and sausage from “producers.”

Instead, consumers want their food from — you guessed it — farmers and ranchers.

So, beginning mid-summer, a new group calling itself the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance will launch a “well-funded, long-term, and coordinated public trust campaign for American agriculture.”

Operate as needed

Its goal, says USFRA chairman Bob Stallman, who moonlights as president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, is to “allow its supporting organizations to operate as needed, while still pooling resources to maximize efficiencies and effectiveness of a consumer influencer and thought leader campaign.”

For those of you who don’t speak public relations as well as Stallman (or his ghost writer) that means USFRA’s 30 or so groups, checkoffs and agbiz “partners” plan to spend upwards of $20 million over the next year to change the face of American agriculture.

Traditional stereotype

No longer will it resemble a land grant alumnus ordering GM seed or livestock antibiotics on an iPhone. Instead, tomorrow’s farmer will look more like Walter Cronkite than Walter Mitty: weathered, wise, trustworthy.

In short, more golden fields, golden sunsets and golden hair and less silver hog barns, silver-sided food factories and silver semis hauling ethanol. (True; ethanol and the upcoming farm bill debate are two topics recently banned by USFRA for discussion.)

How USFRA will pull off this “national trust and image campaign” has yet to be finalized, says Cindy Hackman, executive director for Drake & Co., a Chesterfield, Mo., association management firm with long ties to checkoffs and ag groups, hired to manage the effort.

Disconnection

What is known, Hackman relates, is a troubling “consumer decline in confidence in their food source” today. That drop, according to USFRA, has two causes: a “general disconnect between consumers and farmers” and “opposition groups that attack farming on a daily basis,” she says.

If either is accurate — and both are debatable — you might wonder why the same people often accused of fueling one or both reactions are the same people now gathering money and manpower to remake the image of American farmers and ranchers.

Hackman offered a keen insight to this curious approach in an April 19 telephone interview when she acknowledged that “Farmers and ranchers have a great reputation with consumers. It’s how farmers and ranchers produce that concerns them.”

She’s right. The problem most consumers have with farmers and ranchers is how they produce, not what they produce.

Technology worries

That means consumers have worries about the technology used on many of today’s farms and ranches. New generation technology like GM seeds, “animal health” products, crop chemistry, fertilizer runoff, and agriculture’s vast thirst for water spur questions.

As such, spending $10 million or $20 million on a glossy “consumer influencer and thought leader campaign” is waste of time, money and good will. Putting perfume on a pig and calling it pork doesn’t mean people won’t see the pig.

If the vast majority of consumers have questions about today’s production practices, the least “producer groups” and “producers” can do is give ‘em answers.

Golly, that’s what Walter Cronkite did.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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