Putting the polish on the public’s perception of farmers

Telling people you care about your animals, the land, and the environment can go a long way in building consumer trust.

Does the public think that farmers are protecting the environment, taking good care of their animals and producing food that is safe and wholesome for their families? Who is the general public? Is it your neighbor, the family in Los Angeles, or is it the person reporting the news? These are tough questions to answer, but worth our time to try.

As I researched this subject, one thing became clear– there is no clear answer! The public is not one mass with one opinion. Environmental stewardship, animal care and how food is produced can be very personal issues that some individuals feel very passionate about.

A limited number of studies provide us with some insight into what people are thinking.

In May 2008, Gallup’s annual survey on people’s beliefs and values found that 64% of adults favor strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. It is important to note that this poll was conducted just three months after the high profile video showing abuse of cattle at a California slaughter plant was exposed.

A 2005 Ohio State University survey found that 92% of those surveyed agreed it is important to them that farm animals be well cared for. An opinion, one would assume, that all livestock and dairy farmers would agree with. The Ohio survey also reported 81% of the participants agreed the wellbeing of farm animals is just as important as the wellbeing of pets, a somewhat more surprising finding. Similarly, a survey in Arizona found that 34% of participants felt farm animals raised for food should be treated the same way household pet owners treat their animals. Does that mean they feel farm animals should be groomed monthly, be toted around in a bag (or worse yet- the ‘doggie stroller’)? Or does that mean that farm animals should have a dry place to rest, nourishing food, and protection from wind, cold and rain? While the later is a standard we can all agree on, the Arizona study didn’t provide any insight what exact care standards the survey participants would find acceptable.

The Arizona survey also found that 77% of the participants were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the treatment of farm animals, 58% said that “corporate farms” treat their animals less humanely than “family farms”, and 65% believe that laws are necessary to require farmers to treat farm animals humanely.

So why does such a high percentage of the population have little faith in farmers respect for the environment we all live in and their concern for the animals they raise? One common held believe is most U.S. residents have no reference point on how their food is being produced. The vast majority are at least three generations removed from the farm. In fact, fewer than 2% of the U.S. population live or work on a farm, and only 17% live in rural areas. Residents who have never been on a ‘real’ farm rely on the media and the Internet for information on farming and food production. Often, special interest groups and non-governmental organizations (NGO) with specific agendas have fulfilled the role of providing this information on the U.S. food producer. Meeting the goals of the NGO/special interest group, the information provided is often misleading, intended to incite the reader and only serve the interest of the group. Unfortunately for agriculture, the best farmers are usually not selected for the evening news. People believe what they see—after all it did really happen, there’s video proof!

Among all this confusion and misinformation lies opportunity for livestock farmers. Urban and city residents maintain high regard for the farmers and ranchers who produce their food. Research by the National Pork Board (NPB) and reported in the Board’s “Neighbor to Neighbor” program, shows “Farming and Ranching” are the fourth highest regarded professions behind only Teachers, Veterinarians and Physicians. This esteem for farmers and ranchers offers the opportunity to impact the public’s perception of food production. By using this credibility and communicating directly with the consumers, farmers have the opportunity to positively impact consumers attitude on food production, farming and ranching’s impact on the environment and farm animal care.

Farmers should challenge themselves to give people another reference point—one provided by a good producer and one the public can relate to personally. Whether it is hosting a group on your farm, or going out into the public and presenting your story to local service organizations or supporting your neighbor when they open their farm for a tour, you must get out and talk honestly about the good work you do every day. Tell people you care about the welfare of your animals and how you live on the land and are concerned about the environment too. Resources are readily available to help you get started. Most commodity organizations and MSU Extension have resources available to help you tell your story.

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