COLUMBUS — When he was contacted in the fall of 2010 about showing his company’s meat processing plant on one of the nation’s largest talk shows — The Oprah Winfrey Show — it would have been easy for Cargill’s Communications Director Mike Martin to say no.
In fact, he kind of did at first. The Oprah team first wanted local farming activist Michael Pollan to do the interview, but Martin said he didn’t feel his company — which is heavily industrialized — would get a fair shake.
So the Oprah team reworked its proposal, with a new and experienced journalist in mind, and Martin made the leap. He told a crowd at the 15th annual Ohio Livestock Coalition Sept. 7 in Columbus, that he did the interview to help dispel some of the food myths at the time, and to make sure agriculture was fairly represented.
The story that aired was viewed by millions and showed the whole process of moving cattle through a modern meat processing plant.
It was a risky decision, because Martin was unsure how the video might be used.
“It Could have been a good story, or you might have had somebody different standing here talking to you today,” he said half jokingly.
Lucky for him, and Cargill, it was largely considered a good story. And a good example of how modern agriculture needs to share its message.
The video helped the company explain how the meat industry works, and it prevented the interview from being dominated by the ideological views of food activists.
“We were playing offense,” Martin said. “We took 10 minutes away from Michael Pollan throwing rocks at the industry.”
As Martin sees it, farmers and their industries need to take more time away from their critics — by simply sharing their side.
”If we can space away in newspapers from our critics, by being responsive, if we can take air time away from our critics by participating, we start to win, or at least win more because our voice is heard,” he said.
The Ohio Livestock Coalition represents all major livestock in the state and was well attended by crop and livestock association members.
Its president, former state veterinarian Dave Glauer, opened the meeting with comments about how the OLC is working to unify the livestock industry — especially in regards to attacks by opponents and the spread of misinformation.
Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity discussed farmers’ evolving efforts to do a better job communicating with consumers, and preventing distrust.
A key point to his speech is that facts and numbers aren’t enough, and that farmers need a “social license” or a social acceptance, to be in business.
“You can’t demonstrate your commitment of caring with data,” he said. “Numbers and facts aren’t a way to prove that you’re committed to doing what’s right.”
Arnot said science is still a “crucial element” of what farmers do, but they need to go further if they want to secure public trust.
He encouraged them to watch out for each other, because what happens on one farm can shape the public image of the rest. He also said farmers need to develop working relationships with consumers — before there’s an issue — so the consumer will be more likely to trust the farmer.
And, he encouraged them to embrace transparency and be open about what they do and why. In an era of instant Internet access and cell phones, he said nothing is hidden.
“Transparency is really no longer optional,” he said. “Somebody is watching everything you do, all the time.”
Ron Kensinger, newly appointed chairman of Ohio State University’s Department of Animal Sciences, spoke about the importance of “appreciating” all that farmers and ranchers do, as well as the entire food system.
He started in January and OSU is the fifth land grant university where he’s worked and studied.
“You are the model that everyone in the United States ought to be following,” he said.
Several environmental stewardship awards were presented.
• The Ohio Pork Producers Council stewardship award went to Krikke Pork of Huron County.
• The Ohio Cattlemen’s award went to the Berry family of Fairfield County.
• The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association award went to Francis and Shirley Steffee of Muskingum County.
• The Ohio Dairy Producers Association award went to Virgil Gasser and family of Wayne County.
• The Ohio Poultry Association award went to the Knapke family of Meiring Poultry Farm near Fort Recovery.
• Neighbor of the Year award went to Stan and Karen Carmony of Carmony Farms, a dairy operation in Wayne County.