Today’s farmer needs to add public relations to his job responsibilities

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WOOSTER, Ohio – Today, it is important more important than ever for the agricultural community to build relationships with their nonfarm neighbors. That’s something Carl Theunis knows from experience.

Theunis and his family operate Tinsdale Farm, a 1,600-cow dairy operation in Kaukauna, Wis. Theunis was one of the speakers at the 2002 Manure Science Review on the Wooster campus of the OARDC.

Open door policy. “We get so busy that many times we don’t see the value of opening our doors,” he said. “We need to show people what we are doing.”

Theunis stressed the need for public relations for several reasons. First, attitudes toward agriculture are changing as the general population moves further away from an agricultural heritage. He noted that it used to be everyone knew someone or had a relative who lived on a farm. Today, as the agricultural population continues to decline, that is no longer true.

Secondly, farmers are facing increasing pressures from urban and residential encroachment. Tours can be an important tool to disarm those pressures, Theunis said.

“Many people don’t know where their food comes from,” he said. “We have to show them.”

Get ready. Third, as farmers change their operations, they will face more pressure from their neighbors.

“If you are going through the permitting process, you have to publicize it,” he said. “Be ready for potential negative comments.”

Theunis added that farmers can’t mutter the old adage that “I was here first” because it gives the impression that they don’t care.

“We see people building $300,000 to $400,000 homes next to livestock facilities,” he said. “They will fill the town hall when they find out that the livestock operation is planning an expansion. We are seeing this in Wisconsin and it will happen in Ohio.”

And finally, residents are concerned about road use, particularly increased truck traffic. Theunis stresses the importance of keeping trucks clean and obeying the speed limits when his drivers are traveling through their community.

Be proactive. “We invite our neighbors to the farm,” he said. “We will give our new neighbors welcome baskets and get to know them before there is a problem. Be proactive. Don’t wait for your neighbors to complain.”

Theunis stressed the importance of good public relations and building a good relationship with the community. From a positive aspect, it allows farmers to educate the public on what they do and why they do it.

“People are interested in what you are doing,” he said. “They care about what you do, local connections are lasting.”

He cited a survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation that showed farmers were second only to fireman in terms of the respect they received by the general population.

“The public has you on a pedestal higher than any other occupation except firemen,” he said. “Keep that in mind and wear it with pride.”

The flip side. From a negative standpoint, opening your farm to the public invites public scrutiny of your farm and farming operation. Activists can organize to cause a disturbance.

Local impact. Theunis said it disturbs him when people imply large farms don’t deal with local businesses. “I deal locally because I want a handshake relationship,” he said. “If there is a problem, local businesses want to make it right.”

He stressed the importance of developing a community relations plan to deal with schools, new neighbors and local government actions.

“Define what is needed,” he said. “You never know when it will be your turn to talk about your industry. Public relations is a big job and one farmer can only do so much.”

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