We all know that food has become a hot topic and many people read articles in the media and online that promote many varying views on what foods are healthy and how food is being produced.
Seek to understand
As farmers, you can become a resource for your friends and relatives. People are more likely to trust those they know, and in particular, those who are involved in an area that they want to learn something about. Your cousins and friends may look to you as part of their tribe and a resource for facts about food production.
There are a number of reasons why individuals may have concerns or questions about food production. Often, they have read something about various animal products from a health standpoint, read a label on a food container, or seen or heard about a documentary or book that suggests agriculture is having a huge impact on the environment. They may have friends who tell them that something is bad for them or for the environment or that eating animal products is cruel to animals.
It is important to note that if your friends or relatives say they don’t eat meat or dairy products; you should not immediately tell them that they should or why they should. First, ask why they do not, or why they have concerns about consuming animal or dairy products so you can address those aspects directly.
Second, ask their reasoning or opinion which helps them know you are actively listening to their concerns. This is part of managing conflict. “First seek to understand” comes from Stephen Covey’s book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. For tips on conflict management, another good resource is “People Skills” by Robert Bolton.
Third, people are interested in your values. They tend to seek information from individuals with shared values. Therefore, you may want to discuss the values you have regarding your farm, family and the animals you care for before you spend much time discussing their concerns.
Invite relatives and friends to visit your farm
Even without all the answers, giving your friends and relatives access to your farm and giving them a farm tour allows you to show and explain how you produce healthy and safe food, how you care for the environment, and how you care for the animals on your farm. There are a number of things you can show and cover in your discussion and by touring your operation, your visitors can witness first-hand how your values influence how you do things. In the process, they can ask questions, giving you an open rapport with them as you discuss their concerns and clear up any misconceptions.
Breakfast on the Farm (BOTF) is a program of Michigan State University Extension which hosts yearly on-farm events that include self-guided farm tours.
Survey data from former BOTF events shows that people want to know that animals are cared for, and cow housing is an important aspect of the tour. Ninety-five percent of BOTF participants give housing a positive or very positive rating on a 5-point scale.
More than 40 percent of respondents said that their comfort with how animals are housed and managed was a major factor in increasing their trust in farmers and dairy farms. They see how comfortable a freestall barn is on a hot, sunny day and that animals move freely and have clean, comfortable stalls to rest in. The maternity area shows that there is a special place for calves to be born and calf housing gives you a chance to explain why you separate the calf from the cow soon after birth. Most people do not know that calves are born without immunity to diseases and that separating them is good biosecurity.
People are also interested in what cows eat, so the feed bunks or bunker silos are a place to talk about nutrition and how most farms have a professional nutritionist balancing rations. You can talk about how you monitor feed intake and how the diet is balanced to match a cow’s milk production and/or growth.
Dairy farms participating in the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program can explain what this involves and why it’s important to them to participate in this program.
People want to know that milk is safe. Antibiotic use is important to many consumers. Understanding that producers treat sick cows with appropriate antibiotics but discard milk from these cows was a major factor in increasing consumer trust for about 45 percent of BOTF participants.
You can talk about why and how you treat cows for illnesses. Show them a bottle of antibiotics and talk about the Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP, you and your veterinarian developed for treating sick cows and the withdrawal times for antibiotics before meat or milk can be sold. Talk about the checks in the system for making sure that milk shipped does not contain antibiotics and what happens if a load makes it to the processing plant and has a positive test. You likely have computer records with treatments and use these to track when a cow’s milk can go back in the tank.
Most farms have better health records on cows than we do on people. At least they are all in one place and you can easily see what has occurred over the lifetime of a cow. You might show them how a cow’s milk is tested for antibiotics before it goes back in the tank.
Understanding how the environment is being protected is another area where BOTF visitors gained trust. This was a major factor for about 42 percent responding to surveys. Showing them your manure storage and explaining how nutrients are recycled helps them understand that manure is an asset and that there are ways to use it to reduce the use of fertilizers.
If you are MEAEP verified, you can explain what goes into this effort. While you are talking about your cropping system, you may want to include some information on using genetically engineered plants.
Is food animal production OK?
Wes Jamison, of Palm Beach Atlantic University, learned from surveys that most people empathize with animals, in part, based on their association with their pet dogs and cats since they do not have an association with other types of animals, such as work animals, wild animals, recreational animals or food animals. And, obviously, they don’t like the idea of eating their pets. So when they think about eating meat and animal products, many are willing to commit to improving the lives of food animals as a way to relieve their empathy. Some are not going to agree with eating animals and animal products, and that is their choice.
A fourth-year veterinary student at Cornell University wrote about why he ate meat as a guest columnist in “The Cornell Daily Sun”. He commented, “So how do I — having dedicated my career to their welfare and the relief of their suffering — justify eating and using animals?” One of his points was that without man’s reliance on domesticated animals, these animals would not exist today. However, their existence means that we must provide a humane existence for them.
The majority of the population are interested in making sure animals are cared for. Based upon a Center for Food Integrity national survey which determined that 60 percent strongly agree that if farm animals are treated decently and humanely, they have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs. However, on the other hand, only 25 percent strongly agreed that U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals. This is one area where we need to help consumers understand the efforts producers make to care for their animals. Exit surveys from one BOTF beef event in 2011 showed that shifts in impressions about animal care moved from 10 percent with negative and very negative impressions and 60 percent with positive and very positive impressions about animal care before the tour to 0 percent and 97 percent, respectively, after the tour. Likewise, 10 percent had negative or very negative impressions and 68 percent had positive or very positive impressions about beef cattle housing before the tour. These values shifted to 3 percent and 89 percent, respectively, after the tour.
Finally, those of us who have grown up on dairy and livestock farms have benefitted a great deal from learning to care for animals. This caring carries over to how we treat ourselves, others, and even our parents as they age. We would be different people without animals to care for.