Five years ago at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, dairy producer Les Hardesty was giving milking demonstrations to the public. People were really interested, he recalls. But questions such as “Do you milk the boy cows, too?” or “Does the milk come out cold?” really brought home the need for consumer education. 

“A lot of consumers truly don’t understand what we do,” says Hardesty, of Greeley, Colo.  Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is involved in farming. And most consumers are three to four generations removed from the farm, so a pretty big information gap has evolved.

Hardesty and his wife, Sherrill, decided to do something about it.  In June 2004, they opened Cozy Cow Dairy, a small-scale commercial dairy and visitor center located just outside of Windsor, Colo., to educate consumers. They also sell Cozy Cow-branded milk and cheese.

Investing in an education center is one way to reach consumers. Another is to engage consumers on airplanes, in grocery stores or wherever the opportunity arises. However, most producers don’t realize that “every conversation is an opportunity to make an impact on a lifetime consumer,” says Hardesty.

Here’s why it’s time for you to speak up for dairy.

Urbanization

Fifty years ago, most consumers still had grandparents or relatives who farmed. The average consumer still had “roots” in agriculture, says Richard Cotta, senior vice president of California Dairies, Inc. in Los Banos, Calif. That’s not the case today.

The U.S. has become more urbanized. Even some traditionally rural parts of the country are becoming more urban as people from nearby cities build houses in the country. For further evidence of the change, just look at the makeup of Congress. Rural advocates used to wield tremendous influence. That influence — as well as the number of congressional representatives who understand agriculture — has declined dramatically.

“We need to reconnect with consumers and remind them of what we do,” says Cotta. “They don’t know who we are anymore.”

For example, the definition of an “agriculturalist” was once well understood. But today’s consumer doesn’t realize that an agriculturalist is also an environmentalist and an animal-welfare expert. Nor do they realize how much the dairy industry has changed for the better.

One such example is milk quality. California Dairies pays a bonus for high-quality milk. A few years ago, the co-op paid bonuses totaling $40,000 to $50,000 per month, on average, across its entire membership. Last month, it paid more than $300,000 — a six-fold increase — and the quality standards are more stringent than ever. That’s proof positive that producers are doing a better job of producing high-quality milk.

The dairy industry has many positive messages to share with consumers—less antibiotic use, advances in cow comfort, and the fact that cows are great recyclers of food waste that would otherwise end up in landfills. These messages can help consumers gain a better understanding of today’s dairy industry.

Step up to the plate

“Because we live it everyday, no one else can tell our story like we do,” says Mary Kraft, dairy producer from Fort Morgan, Colo. In fact, speaking up for dairy is something that Mary and her husband, Chris, have been doing for years.

Effective communication with consumers doesn’t have to be difficult. But you do need to learn how to tailor your message and use word pictures to help people understand.  For example, when hosting tour groups from elementary schools, Mary Kraft likens a batch of TMR to the recipe one follows when making chocolate chip cookies with mom.

The majority of people really are interested in what you do, says Kraft. And how enthusiastically you respond (“Yes, I’d be glad to tell you about the dairy!”), as opposed to shying away from their questions, will determine how they view you and the industry at large. 

If the only information consumers receive comes from those with an anti-farm agenda, then the industry must constantly defend itself, say Kraft and Hardesty. That’s why dairy producers need to become more proactive and share positive messages with their neighbors, friends and the people they meet.

To help you accomplish that, Dairy Herd Management has devoted this month’s issue to “talking points.”

Use them to respond to consumer questions.

And remember, when the opportunity arises, speak up and be passionate about what you do.


Communication tips

the next time you’re on an airplane and the person seated next to you asks what you do for a living, seize the opportunity to share a few positive points about the dairy industry.

Mike Swenson, president of Barkley Evergreen Partners public relations firm in Kansas City, Mo., offers these pointers for effective communication:

  1. Use questions to disarm. If someone says something negative about your industry, respond by asking questions. “Why do you say that?” or “Where did you hear that?” are good examples. When you do respond, you can say “That’s funny, I hear that a lot, but it’s really not true.” And then proceed with your explanation. This is a good technique to disarm and then engage the person in a conversation.
  2. Avoid the instant debate. If someone makes a factually incorrect statement, don’t say “You’re wrong and let me tell you why.” That simply polarizes the situation and starts an instant debate that could become confrontational. Instead, you need to think like an ambassador. Ask questions, listen and try to develop a relationship so a fruitful conversation can be established in which information is shared.            
  3. Keep key messages ready.  Develop a few key messages that share something positive about what you do, your industry, or the products you produce. These are your brand messages. Commit them to memory or laminate them on a note card.
  4. Avoid confrontational people. If someone is not a listener, or has had a bad experience with dairy and wants to be confrontational, then it’s probably best to back off and agree to disagree. A tactful way to do that is to say “I appreciate that you are passionate about your point of view. And I’m really passionate about what I do. In this case, we can agree to disagree.”