OKAWVILLE, Ill. – Add one more item to the list of chores that Larry Hasheider has to do on his 1,700-acre farm: defending his business to the American public.
There’s a lot of conversation about traditional agriculture recently, and much of it is critical. Think genetically modified crops, overuse of hormones and antibiotics, inhumane treatment of animals and over-processed foods.
This explosion of talk about food — some based on fact, some based on fiction — has already transformed the marketplace. Slow to respond and often defensive, farmers and others in agribusiness have for several years let critics define the public debate and influence consumers. Now, the industry is trying to push farmers and businesses to fight back, connecting with those consumers through social media and outreach that many in agriculture have traditionally shunned.
“We as farmers now have another role in addition to being farmers,” Hasheider says as he takes a break from harvesting his corn crop. “It’s something you have to evolve into.”
In addition to corn, Hasheider grows soybeans, wheat and alfalfa on the farm nestled in the heart of Illinois corn country. He cares for 130 dairy cows, 500 beef cattle and 30,000 hogs. And now, he’s giving tours of his farm, something he says he never would have done 20 years ago.
“We didn’t think anyone would be interested in what we were doing,” he says.
Like a lot of other farmers, Hasheider was wrong.
Take the issue of genetically modified foods. There has been little scientific evidence to prove that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts, but consumer concerns and fears — many perpetuated through social media and the Internet — have forced the issue. A campaign to require labeling of modified ingredients on food packages has steadily gained attention, and some retailers have vowed not to sell them at all.
Makers of the engineered seeds and the farmers and retailers who use them stayed largely silent, even as critics put forth a simple, persuasive argument: Consumers have a right to know if they are eating genetically modified foods.
Modified seeds are now used to grow all of the nation’s corn and soybean crops, most of which are turned into animal feed.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a well-known critic of food companies and artificial and unhealthy ingredients in foods, has not opposed genetically modified foods, on the basis that there’s no evidence they are harmful.
Still, director Michael Jacobson says, the issue has taken on a life of its own to the general public.
Companies like Monsanto Corp. “try to argue back with facts, but emotions often trump facts,” Jacobson says. “They are faced with a situation where critics have an emotional argument, a fear of the unknown.”
Perhaps no one understands this dynamic better than Robert Fraley, who was one of the first scientists to genetically modify seeds and now is executive vice-president and chief technology officer of Monsanto. He says the company was late to the public relations game as critics worked to vilify it, even holding marches on city streets to protest Monsanto by name.
Fraley says he has spent “more than a few nights” thinking about the company’s image problem. He says Monsanto always thought of itself as the first step in the chain and has traditionally dealt more with farmers than consumers.
About a year ago, in an attempt to dispel some of the criticism, the company started addressing critics directly and answering questions through social media and consumer outreach. The company is also reaching out to nutritionists and doctors, people whom consumers may consult. Fraley is personally tweeting — and, like Hasheider, he says it’s something he never would have thought about doing just a few years ago.
“We were just absent in that dialogue, and therefore a lot of the urban legends just got amplified without any kind of logical balance or rebuttal,” Fraley says of the criticism.
At a recent conference of meat producers, David Wescott, director of digital strategy at APCO Worldwide, told ranchers they needed to do a better job connecting with — and listening to — mothers, who often communicate on social media about food and make many of the household purchasing decisions.
“It’s a heck of a lot more convincing when a mom says something than when a brand does,” says Wescott, who says he has worked with several major farm and agriculture companies to help them reach out to consumers, especially moms.
Other farm groups, like Illinois Farm Families, are inviting moms to tour the fields. Tim Maiers of the Illinois Pork Producers Association says the group has found that consumers generally trust farmers, but they have a lot of questions about farming methods.
One of the moms, Amy Hansmann, says that though she remains concerned about the amount of processed foods and chemicals in the food supply, her experiences touring conventional farms with Illinois Farm Families changed her thinking. She was particularly amazed by the big farmers’ use of technology and attempts to be sustainable.
Hansmann says that before the tour, her perception from the media was that these big farmers were “evil capitalists” who focused only on their businesses and not on the care of the land or animals.
“What I found couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says.
Chris Chinn, a blogger and a fifth generation farmer and mom from Clarence, Mo., is trying to reach out to others like Hansmann, too. Chinn, 38, carves 20 minutes or more out of her schedule every day to get on Twitter, comment on online articles and update her blog. Her internet service can be spotty in rural Clarence, but she sometimes types out entire blog posts on her smartphone and tries to respond to every Tweet that is directed to her — some of them nasty.
“We’ve been late to the game, and we realized that if we don’t start sharing, people are going to start forming opinions about you,” says Chinn, who is working with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, formed by more than 80 farm groups to try to improve agriculture’s message.
Chinn says she started using social media because of animal rights campaigns that have aimed to eliminate gestation crates that she and other hog farmers use for pregnant sows. Hog farmers say the crates are important to keep the pigs and their piglets safe; animal rights groups say they are inhumane and have pushed state legislatures to get rid of them.
Chinn says her smaller farm could go under if she was forced to get rid of the crates, because she and her husband wouldn’t be able to get a loan for new equipment. She believes that if people knew more about these operations, they would understand.
Some critics say that dialogue isn’t going to be enough, arguing that the companies will have to make some real concessions in addition to defending what they do if they are going to win over consumers. They point to Monsanto’s expensive campaigns against mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in California and Washington State. The company won both fights.
Fighting the mandatory labels has “made it look like big ag has more to hide,” says Gary Hirshberg, a co-founder of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm. He has worked in the past few years on the labeling campaign. Hirshberg and other critics have argued that Monsanto and retailers should just accept the labels and move on.
Some farmers have decided that responding to consumer preference is the smartest route for their businesses. Nestled in low hills along the Missouri River just west of St. Louis, John Ritter has a 1,500 acre farm and a herd of 200 cattle. His wife, Heidi, recently created a Facebook profile for their cattle ranch, and the two have worked with the Missouri Beef Industry Council to reach out to consumers.
They say they are shocked by some of the misperceptions about agriculture on the Internet, like the assumption that most cattle operations are so-called “factory farms.”
At the same time, they realize they are somewhat powerless in the conversation.
John says he stopped using growth hormones in his cattle. “We don’t do it because we don’t want to have to explain how we do it,” he says.
Many farmers are taking that a step further and taking advantage of the consumer trends — labeling foods as natural or local.
“It’s the first time any of us have seen anything like this,” says Ken Colombini of the National Corn Growers Association. “The more that kind of demand builds, the more we’re going to have to change what we’re doing.”
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick