July 23, 2024

Be proactive to develop trusted relationships with consumers

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — All farmers have the opportunity to participate in conversations about food production.

“The Animal Agriculture Alliance was started to safeguard the future of animal agriculture because there’s a lot of misinformation about modern animal agriculture,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman, president and CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “There is a lot we can do to bring balance and perspective to that conversation.”

“You can have an influence on social media or by reaching out to your legislators and local media,” she said during a presentation at the Women in Agriculture conference presented by Illinois Farm Bureau. “Everyone in this room can be lending their voice to these conversations.”

It is exciting, Thompson-Weeman said, that now more than ever people want to know about their food.

“Especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time for some of us we went to the grocery store and couldn’t grab everything we needed immediately,” she said. “People had to think about where their food was coming from.”

Interest in buying local food soared, Thompson-Weeman said.

“People wanted to have a connection to the food that they were feeding to their family and that’s a huge opportunity for us,” she said.

“But unfortunately a lot of the loudest voices who are jumping at the chance to answer questions are not people that share our values or our perspective on agriculture,” Thompson-Weeman said.

“A big part of the alliance’s work is monitoring groups and individuals that don’t believe there is anyway to ethnically and responsibly use animals for any purpose including for food,” she said.

The idea of animal rights is very different from the concept of animal welfare, Thompson-Weeman said.

“Animal welfare is how animals are doing in their circumstances, if they are healthy or stressed,” she said.

“The concept of animal rights is that animals should be afforded rights similar to those as humans,” she said. “The animal rights mindset is not about how the animals are raised or the standards of animal welfare — if we are using animals, they are opposed to that.”

The animals rights movement is very well-funded and strategic, Thompson-Weeman said.

“We have profiles on more than 200 organizations from groups like PETA who say we need to end animal agriculture and everyone needs to go vegan, to other groups who attempt to position themselves as more animal welfare focused as a way to be taken seriously to get in the door to a boardroom or courtroom to exert an influence,” she said.

These groups are not only targeting consumers with misinformation, Thompson-Weeman said.

“Key influencers, decision-makers, legislators and journalists are all being targeted by these groups with a negative concept of animal agriculture,” she said.

When the alliance was started in 1987, a large part of the group’s work was focused on animal welfare and how animals were raised.

“Now, we are spending just as much, if not more, time in the sustainability and nutrition conversation,” Thompson-Weeman said. “We’re talking about the environmental impact of animal protein and the nutritional value it brings to the diet.”

Animal rights groups are targeting retail, restaurant and food service brands to adopt certain policies for improvement in animal welfare, she said.

“But really it’s about reducing efficiency and driving up costs,” Thompson-Weeman said. “They attack things like gestation stalls or cages for laying hens.”

“They believe if they can get brands to make a certain policy it will be faster than getting legislation passed in multiple states,” she said. “And we still see legislation and legislators being a target of those campaigns.”

For effective conversations, Thompson-Weeman said, it is important to listen for an opportunity.

“Be mindful of where you’re spending your time to engage on issues,” she said. “If you feel it’s the right time and place to engage, find a shared value.”

Since agriculture is a science-driven industry, too often ag spokespeople launch right into scientific studies.

“But we have to connect with consumers as a human first,” Thompson-Weeman said.

“We have a built-in shared value because everybody eats and everyone has a personal connection to food,” she said. “If there is opening, share your personal story and then back it up with science, but make sure it’s a two-way conversation versus a one way of throwing out the information.”

It is important work proactively with consumers.

“Too often, we wait until the issue lands on our doorstep and that’s when we get involved or a negative story about our industry is in the local newspaper,” Thompson-Weeman said.

“The time to have conversations as a trusted voice is before the issue hits,” she said. “Every time you have a positive interaction by giving a farm tour, talking to the media proactively or visiting a school, you’re making a deposit in your trust bank.”

“Then when there’s an issue and people trust you, you have goodwill built up in your trust back account to draw against,” she said.

“Ultimately, it’s about being transparent and taking away the mystery for people who have never been on a farm or never been inside a barn,” Thompson-Weeman said. “You want to be that personal connection, so they know to call you.”

Sometimes the issues will be controversial.

“We need to respect differences of opinion while sharing accurate information” Thompson-Weeman said. “Somebody could have all the same information that you do and come to a different conclusion and that’s OK.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor