By: Shannon Linderoth
Senior Public Relations Writer
I’m not fond of scare tactics, so when Facebook friends or headlines resort to demagogy about the safety of our food supply I generally refuse the message on principle, then investigate on my own whenever possible to find out if there’s any basis for their claims before accepting them as “truth.” Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult to sift fact from fiction.
Case in point, the recent “pink slime” debacle, which has turned out to be a classic situation of perception becoming reality regardless of scientific proof or truth.
What does this have to do with locally grown? Bear with me, I’m getting there.
Because of the disconnect between consumers and their food—how it is raised, harvested, processed and packaged—“pink slime” became an easy target for misrepresentation, mistrust and even outright fear.
Here’s another report regarding the safety of imported foods that will probably only add to consumer confusion and consternation.
The meteoric rise of the locally grown food movement is a direct reflection of this mistrust. And frankly, I understand the sentiment and do support local growers whenever possible. But I also understand there are good economic and often sound environmental reasons why food and fiber production have migrated to their current locations and am perfectly fine with buying strawberries from Florida or California when I can’t get them fresh here in Michigan.
Those of us in agriculture are lucky enough to be able to see the big picture of our food supply because we deal with it every day, know why things are done as they are done, and trust our growth, regulatory and distribution systems to keep us safe. And we know that proper food storage and good food prep hygiene are our responsibility.
But if you haven’t had that opportunity or knowledge, it’s easier to believe the headlines and scare tactics. After all, who has the time to track down every food safety report or rumor? Yet, if we don’t, ignorance wins, and everyone loses, consumers and agriculture alike.
By: Brian Sterricker
The New York Times has asked its readership—and anyone else, for that matter—to submit essays on a simple topic: Why it is ethical to eat meat? This isn’t meant to be a sounding board for the local food movement, organic advocates or meat lovers. No, the issue is a more fundamental one: whether or not it’s right to eat animals at all, when human survival is no longer on the line.
It’s a national call to arms for both sides of the topic. The Times has assembled a distinguished panel of thinkers and influencers on the subject of consuming meat—a “murderer’s row,” as they put it, which I thought was in questionable taste but also made me laugh—to judge the responses. I’m anxious to see the results; your essay (not to exceed 600 words) is due April 8. In the meantime, what do your ethics say: Go meat, or no meat?
By: Dave Harding
Public Relations Director
Abe Lincoln would be proud. The agency he created in 1862 to support American agriculture is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. President Lincoln referred to the USDA as “The People’s Department” because the agency’s business touched so many lives. Back then 50 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today that number has dropped to two percent. But one thing hasn’t changed. The agricultural industry still reaches everyone, just like it did 150 years ago.
Over 2,000 people convened in Arlington, Virginia, this week for the annual USDA Ag Outlook Forum. For this special anniversary edition of the Forum, the program featured a unique review of U.S. agriculture—past, present and future. Homage was paid to historical milestones that established U.S leadership in production efficiency and innovation. Stock of current markets and projections for 2012 was taken. But most importantly, the dialogue focused on challenges and opportunities for the ag industry going forward.
The opening session, moderated by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, featured a panel of seven former Secretaries of Agriculture, whose terms spanned the last four decades. USDA also premiered a short film titled “Secretaries of Agriculture–30 Leaders, 150 Years,” which looks at the history of USDA from the viewpoints of its nine most recent Secretaries.
Watching the film, it quickly became apparent the biggest challenge for all of them was managing change. Managing change is a tall task that requires strong leadership. This is especially true when you’re dealing with such a vast and varied array of stakeholders and constituents. The issues facing our agricultural industry today couldn’t even have been imagined 150 years ago. This year’s agenda focused on biomass, renewable energy, climate change and conservation of resources, especially water. But the biggest focus has been on sustainability. This is clearly the driving issue for production agriculture in the 21st century.
2012 is expected to be a strong year for the ag industry. Projections are it will produce the 2nd highest farm income on record. That outlook is good news for agri-marketers. And it would probably draw a soft smile of satisfaction from Honest Abe.
By: Betsy Francoeur
Sr. Public Relations Account Executive
This year has been a roller coaster of extreme weather, key government policies and changing technology. Despite 2011’s challenges, the agriculture community has pulled together to pull through.
On May 22, an F-5-rated tornado tore through southwest Missouri, destroying one-third of the town of Joplin, Mo. An outpouring of support for Joplin came through Facebook groups, charities and fundraisers.
Nearly a year’s worth of rain fell in the area over the Missouri River basin in the end of May alone. The Missouri River levee was blown up by the Army Corps of Engineers to save the town of Cairo, Illinois, from destruction. The consequence was flooding of the nearby countryside along with the loss of homes, crops, and fields. The cost of the floods totaled over $4 billion.
Heat and Drought
Oklahoma and Texas experienced the worst heat and drought since the Dust Bowl.
Agriculture loses a rising star. Dr. Christopher Ryan Raines, 29, an assistant professor of meat science and technology in the Department of Dairy and Animal Science in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, passed away on Dec. 18, 2011, as the result of an automobile accident.
Connecting with Consumers
Evidence of the shift within the agriculture industry from communicating to consumers to conversing with consumers is everywhere.
America’s producers offer consumers unprecedented access to their daily activities and encourage conversation through blogs such as Proud to Dairy.
Child Labor on the Farm
Farm families fear proposed Labor Department regulations that would limit the work that young people can do on farms, affecting children’s ability to earn money, work for their families and learn “life lessons” while training to work in agriculture.
Dairy Market Stabilization Program Stand Off
The Dairy Price Stabilization Program, or the DPSP, is a national program aimed at giving individual dairy facilities a financial incentive to manage their milk production. The program receives both strong support and strong opposition from dairy groups across the country.
What was your biggest story from 2011? Share it with us here.
By: Dave Harding
Public Relations Director
Technology usually doesn’t impress me. I’ve never read Wired magazine, and I don’t covet the latest gadgets, gizmos or widgets. But I saw a little bit of technology recently that was exceptionally clever, and it was on a small diversified farm in rural Wisconsin.
Schuett Farms raises beef cattle, feeding out their calves right there on the farm with corn and hay they grow themselves. Pumpkins are grown and sold in the fall. Sweet corn in the summer. And this time of year, Schuett Farms sells Christmas trees.
After picking out a nice Frazier fir, I went to settle up with the proprietor, who was set up nicely in a heated shack with a dog and a delicious-smelling cup of hot chili.
“Howdy. Nice tree,” he says. “That’s $40 bucks. How will you be paying for that today?”
Since I didn’t have any cash, I was banking on the fact he’d take a check. “I’ve got a check or a credit card if that works,” I replied. “What’s your preference?”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll take a credit card if you want.”
Well, that’s exactly what I wanted, and he seemed to sense it. But I was really surprised he was set up for credit in the temporary shack. Little did I know. Maybe I should be reading Wired.
“Sure, credit’s no problem,” he says. And without even taking off his gloves, he pulls out his phone (his phone!) and swipes my credit card through an ultra-small device that was plugged into an Android smartphone.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty cool.”
“Isn’t it? I can print a receipt if you’d like, or I can email it to you.”
I put my John Hancock directly on the screen of his phone with a special “pen” for that sort of thing and declined a receipt. “Don’t need one, it will show up on my statement.”
After getting a little information about the beef available for order (sold by quarter, half, or whole), we loaded up the tree and said so long.
I suspect the whole Smart-phone-credit-card-swipe-device isn’t that new or groundbreaking to lots of folks, but it was to me. And to learn about it for the first time on a small farm out in the country? Twice as nice.
By: Bill Stadick
Sr. Director of Creative Services
That’s right, peanut butter, the ubiquitous foodstuff that has magically appeared on store shelves my entire life. To be smeared with grape jelly between two slices of bread. To be spread atop an Oreo® cookie. To be sampled straight from the jar on a whim.
Was the cost of peanut butter really skyrocketing? How was it possible (or necessary) to raise the price of something so commonplace?
It’s like increasing the price of air.
Suddenly, I had to know every last detail. And I wasn’t alone. Throughout November, everyone from “mommy bloggers” to the investment community was suddenly showing keen interest in how the 2011 peanut harvest and the latest price of runner peanuts would affect National Peanut Butter Lovers’ Month.
That’s when I realized farmers really are a lot like offensive linemen. The casual football fan only thinks about offensive linemen when there’s a holding penalty or the quarterback gets blindsided. Similarly, most people only think about farmers when there’s an issue with U.S. agriculture or something goes wrong like a food recall or a poor peanut harvest.
And that’s not only a shame. It has to change.
Any general manager, quarterback or savvy fan can tell you how important offensive linemen are to the success of a football team. How can we help the average consumer become savvier fans of the food system and the “offensive linemen” who make it successful?