Jolley: Five Minutes With Bob Stallman & The Defense Of American Agriculture

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American agriculture is a marvel of modern technology. Yet many people want it to return to the good old days of small, family farms that were the backbone of this country at the turn of the last century. To complicate the problem, “family farm” is a hard-to-define concept. Is it just Mom, Dad, 2.3 kids and a dog? Is a hired hand a disqualification? And there is that pejorative “Factory Farm” term that’s too often used to slander anything bigger than 40 acres.

American agriculture is an awesomely efficient producer of food on a scale unimaginable just a few generations ago. Yet the efficiencies are often attacked for the scientific advances that created them. Why are scientific advances are celebrated in all fields, except agriculture?

Too often, the attacks have been based on pseudo-science and ridden into the public consciousness on the coat tails of political agendas, but they have gained credence over the years. A credible defense has never been mounted because enough agricultural interests with enough clout could never pull together.

Last week, they pulled together.

“We in production agriculture recognize the immediate need to build consumer trust in today’s U.S. food production system,” said Bob Stallman, CEO of the newly formed U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Association. “We also recognize the need to maintain and enhance the freedom of American farmers and ranchers to operate in an economical, sustainable and responsible manner. The sun rises today on a new, collaborative and coordinated effort by many segments of production agriculture to tell our great story as never before.”

Let’s spend a few minutes with Mr. Stallman and talk about this long overdue, worthwhile alliance and what it proposes to do.

Q. Bob, The formation of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance was announced at the NAFB Convention in Kansas City last week. As chairman of this new group, you made the formal announcement and introduced some of the participants. First, let’s talk about the Alliance. What are the Alliance’s goals?

A.
We have four strategic objectives at this time.

1. Increase consumer, consumer influencer and thought leader trust and confidence in today’s agriculture;
2. Serve as a resource to food companies on the benefits of today’s agricultural production;
3. Work with leading health, environmental and dietary organizations to demonstrate the benefits of today’s agricultural production; and
4. Increase the role of farmers and ranchers as the voice of animal and crop agriculture on local, state and national food issues.

As we measure success in the coming years, these objectives may be revised so that our purpose remains relevant and our efforts are on target.

Q. There are 24 groups that are backing this effort, which seems to have come together fairly quickly. Who are they and why did they choose to join the Alliance?

A.
In an extremely modest attempt to speak on behalf of the 23 organizations that have joined USFRA, I think the reason they are behind this effort is because it’s time. Agriculture is facing a very serious fight, and if we don’t step into the ring, we might as well already be knocked out of the game. The farmers and ranchers that these 23 organizations represent deserve to have the industry behind them, and fighting for them to continue what they do so well.

The 23 organizations are: American Egg Board, American Farm Bureau Federation, American National CattleWomen, American Sheep Industry, American Soybean Association, American Sugar Alliance, Beef Checkoff, Federation of State Beef Councils, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Board, National Pork Producers Council, Southern Peanut Farmers Federation, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, U.S. Grains Council, United Egg Producers, United Fresh Produce Association, United Soybean Board, U.S. Soybean Federation, and Western Growers Association.

Q. Enhancing consumer trust after years of well-coordinated and well-funded attacks promises to be a difficult task. With some best-selling anti-ag books, years of slanted press coverage and the success of movies such as Food, Inc., the deck would seem to be stacked against you. Certainly their voices have been loud and the pockets of anti-ag groups have been deep. How do you plan to coordinate and finance a turnaround in public opinion?

A.
We have a steep hill to climb, there’s no doubt. For years, segments of agriculture have focused on issues that pertain to that one segment. For the first time, all of agriculture is represented within USFRA, which will coordinate the broader agricultural messages to help turnaround public opinion. One of the key research points that we hold on to is that consumers trust farmers. After all, they are the heart and soul of our nation. The programs and projects that USFRA will implement have not yet been outlined, but will be in the next 3-6 months.

Q. The key influencers and thought leaders have tended to be organizations like Food & Water Watch, the Humane Society of the United States, and Center for Science in the Public Interest, and people like Robert Kenner, Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin – all have been extremely successful in telling the ‘other’ side of the story. You’ll be targeting your own list. Who will they be?

A.
We’re very realistic in recognizing that a campaign targeted directly at consumers is not something we can properly fund at this time. We want to focus on the customers of agriculture – like food technologists, nutritionists, restaurants and supermarkets – so that their understanding of and comfort level for today’s agriculture is as high as it can be. Those customers are consumer touch-points, and can help tell our story.

Q. The success of USFRA’s efforts will be based on the issues they choose to debate and how well they can affect public opinion. Which issues do you see as most important today?

A.
The primary issue that USFRA will initially touch is the idea of public trust in the food system, including today’s agriculture production. The average consumer is seven generations removed from the farm, so their idea of successful, productive farming does not match up with the reality of today’s agriculture. The gap between the consumer’s idea of a farm and the reality of today’s farm needs to be narrowed. And most importantly, consumers need to trust that farmers raise food in a responsible, efficient and effective manner, so everyone can eat a safe and nutritious diet.

Q. In looking at the founding member associations, I was impressed by the breadth of the list. It crosses the vast majority of production agriculture. What’s missing, though, seems to be significant buy-in by processor level associations and food processing companies. Will USFRA be approaching those groups for assistance?

A.
USFRA will be approaching agribusinesses, including the food and food ingredient segments, for support in the next few months. We’ll also be looking at existing groups within these segments of agribusiness with whom we may potentially form a partnership. USFRA will remain comprised of farmer and rancher organizations, although one of our most important first steps is engaging everyone who has a stake in this issue.

Q. Thousands of people read Cattlenetwork. What would you like to say to them?

A.
Our food supply is the most safe, nutritious and affordable on the planet. However, we cannot afford to take it for granted. All U.S. citizens must understand that today’s agricultural production practices are instrumental in producing that food supply. USFRA appreciates Cattlenetwork readers are part of that educational process.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Cattlenetwork.com and Agnetwork.com.



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