Commentary: Protect your farm and remove the gag

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Flights are a great way to meet people. They are also excellent opportunities to share the story of agriculture.

click image to zoomWyatt BechtelI asked for his mother's consent for a photo, but do I need it from agriculture producers? During my trip last week to Agricultural Media Summit in Buffalo, N.Y., I met a young woman and her not quite 2 year old son. He became quite fussy upon takeoff and was screaming for the first five minutes or so. Eventually, the toddler calmed down but he was still very anxious because this was his first time on a plane, it was also his mom's first trip on a plane.

To help keep the little guy occupied I pulled out my latest copy of Dairy Herd Management. I thought if nothing else the toddler would have fun looking at the pictures, and he did.

Every time the tiny tike turned a page he beamed with delight, "COOOOWWWWS!"

He enjoyed looking at the pictures of baby calves and tractors. I'm sure it was a great learning experience for the soon to be 2 year old.

It was also a good time for me to share with his mother what I do as a rancher and an agricultural communicator. She didn't know a lot about farm life, but I think she gained a greater appreciation of what agriculture does for her family.

click image to zoomWyatt BechtelHeadlines and images like this are changing the perception of agriculture for the worse. I was pretty happy with myself after I got off the plane at Washington Dulles International Airport as I thought about sharing pictures on social media of the young boy staring at the latest issue of Dairy Herd Management. But that was before I saw the newest magazine version of Mother Jones.

On the cover of the politically left-wing publication was an illustration of a man with his lips sealed shut with bacon and the headline "Gagged by Big Ag."

Now, I wasn't shocked to see the magazine as I had already read the article online. It was an interesting take on the "ag-gag" dilemma that is facing many states, but a rather one sided view of the story from the perspective of animal rights activists. It did leave a bad taste in my mouth seeing the magazine so blatantly out there in public.

I began thinking did anything that I said to that young mother on the plane have any staying power, or would a salacious news story undo one small victory for agriculture. It's hard to know, but I do know this "ag-gag" does not look good in writing or on television.

I'm really torn on this "ag-gag" debate. As a livestock producer, I don't want my way of life, my family business and my home put at jeopardy because of an undercover camera. However, as a journalist who believes in the First Amendment and the Freedom of the Press, I think we are overstepping our boundaries in protecting what we hold so dear.

For instance, I live in the state of Kansas, the very first state to enact farm protection legislation back in 1990 (side note: I was barely 2 years old in 1990). I take a lot of pictures of livestock and crop fields on weekends as I drive back and forth from work in Lenexa to the family ranch near Eureka. This activity could potentially get me into a lot of trouble if someone were to catch me in the act of photographing their property without consent.

click image to zoomBechtel Family PhotoThat's me in the front. I've grown up in agriculture, but I'm not sure "ag-gag" is a good thing. Until that time comes, I'm going to continue taking pictures of agriculture in Kansas and across the nation. I'm also going to continue spreading the word to consumers about an industry I care a great deal for and I hope you will too.

I know that last message was beating a dead horse (by the way that's something an animal rights activist would love to catch you doing, so don't do it), but I think it bears repeating that agriculture producers need to be more open to having conversations with consumers.

Talking to people while you're away from the farm on a parts run, grocery shopping, or even the rare plane flight for a vacation could give that consumer a better view of agriculture. Social media is an excellent way to stay on the farm or ranch and connect to 98 percent of American citizens who are not involved with agriculture. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are great mediums to share your story and make a positive impact.

Let's take the gags off ourselves and stop trying to put them on other people.

Oh, and the next time I'm on a flight I'll make sure to have an issue of PorkNetwork, so the person sitting next to me will know that bacon isn't meant to keep your mouth shut.


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