My path into agriculture was a little different than most people. Agriculture wasn’t my family business; I didn’t grow up raising farm animals or helping to plant fields. I often tell people that agriculture was the career that chose me: as a college sophomore who started working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
Fast forward eight years, two degrees, four moves and numerous life milestones later — and I’m back where my love for agriculture began. I’m in Washington, D.C., working as the Communications Director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
While my background may not be typical, what it lacks in tradition, it makes up for in perspective. My unique background helps me look at things both as a person strongly dedicated to serving the animal agriculture industry, as well as a person “on the outside” ― someone who is removed from the farm, someone, for instance, like the majority of consumers.
It’s no secret that the animal agriculture industry has been having some, what I like to call, public relations growing pains. For so long, the animal agriculture industry has been “mums the word” about what they do, how they do it and why they love to do it. But no more.
The onslaught of anti-meat campaigns and propaganda, the new, hyper-social, uber-connected world we live in and the consumer’s desire to know the “story” behind their food has forced us all to critically examine the need to communicate and the importance of communicating effectively.
A few weeks ago, I visited a large, vertically-integrated pork production operation in the Midwest and chronicled my observations in a guest blog for Meatingplace. This trip was important because it allowed me to ask the experts (the people that actually work with animals day in and day out) the questions that I get asked all the time by reporters, the general public and activists.
The trip also highlighted for me some discrepancies in the terminology we use to describe common industry practices. For example, the company I visited prefers to call gestation stalls “individual maternity pens.” For me, a fellow industry stakeholder, I can get on board with that terminology because I know what those words mean — just like I know the meaning of a gestation stall.
But to the consumer, you might as well be speaking another language. Couple the industry’s technical and often scientific terminology with the images that consumers see from the activist community, and we communicators have a battle before we even wake up in the morning.
My point is that the name shouldn’t matter as much as the rationale, or story, behind why we do the things we do. To most consumers, when presented with the pictures by activist groups of modern hog housing, regardless of whether we call them gestation stalls or individual maternity pens, they are left with the impression animals experience inhumane conditions on “factory farms.”
We in the industry know that’s not the truth, but it doesn’t matter. We’re dealing with perception and not reality; exactly what the activists capitalize on.
Take, for example a recent Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) campaign that asked bus riders in Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, Iowa, "How would you like to spend the rest of your life in a space as small as a bus seat?,” a comparison to the size of gestation stalls.
Activist groups, like HSUS, know that there’s no quicker way to tug on the emotional heartstrings of the average American than to use an image with a compelling slogan or question. And notice—they didn’t even use the term gestation crate, maternity pen or any other combination of those words in their advertisement.
Why? Because it doesn’t matter to consumers what we (the industry) call them!
So let’s stop worrying about the semantics (and trust me, as a trained attorney I love my semantics) and look at the forest and not the trees. Let’s start communicating about the “why” and not just the what.
I’ll tell consumers all the things I learned on my trip: that sows are aggressive, that they like to be close together (those in group housing typically lay together anyway, a term my guide called “Velcro pigs”) and that in some ways, individual stalls allow for better management and tracking of the sows’ wellness, feeding habits and other factors.
Or if you’re a proponent of group housing, I’ll explain the “why” behind that, too.
If we don’t start getting to the root of the negative perception, decisions about how to raise animals are going to continue to be made by those most removed from the farm.
And I think we can all agree that no one wants that.