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Ag tells its story

Farms and ranches increasingly recognize they have to tell their story, or activist groups will do it for them.

More producers use social media to communicate with public

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

CANBY,Ore.— Willamette Egg Farms is “Big Ag” by any definition. Its long rows of hen houses, here and in Moses Lake, Wash., hold up to 40,000 chickens each, most of them caged. The company’s Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds lay about 1.7 million eggs a day in highly automated settings, making Willamette the biggest egg producer in Oregon — and a sitting target for animal welfare critics.

But co-owner Greg Satrum is willing to talk to them, work with them and let them inside. He’s betting that informed consumers and advocacy groups are smart enough to understand what he does and why he does it — especially if he shows he’s listening to them, too.

The company’s pivot to transparency is significant. Increasingly, producers and processors are realizing that if they don’t tell their story, an opposing activist group will. It’s now common for farms and ranches to have websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and use them to explain themselves or simply establish a social media presence when someone searches for them on Google.

Rural bloggers routinely counter the online arguments of environmental or animal rights groups. Companies such as Willamette Egg Farms have produced YouTube videos that take viewers on a tour of their operations. A handful of public relations firms, based in big cities, now specialize in representing farmers, ranchers, processors and commodity groups.

‘Things have changed’

Willamette Egg Farms was once as reticent about attention as most other companies, and Satrum acknowledges some egg producers thought his company was “a little foolish” in opening itself to the public. Many people retain bucolic mental images of “chickens running around in a barnyard and the farmer throwing grain,” he says, and taking them inside modern hen houses containing thousands of chickens seemed like inviting trouble.

“I guess in the past we kind of operated on the assumption that consumers don’t understand what we do and therefore it’s risky to show people what you do, because you may be misunderstood,” says Satrum, the third generation of his family to run the business.

“I don’t think that premise is correct,” Satrum says. “I think people understand things have changed, and people are used to change today. The other thing we have to accept is that we’re never going to make everyone happy. There are a percentage of people that we know don’t like chickens in any sorts of cages.

“But you’ve still got that 80 percent who are rational people and will give us some consideration if you show them some respectful information and respect their intelligence,” he says.

A couple of other factors are at play, Satrum and others say. First, many urban consumers are intensely interested in how their food is produced, but are at least two generations removed from having seen it or taken part in it themselves. Also, traditional print and broadcast media have shrunk to the point that they don’t cover agriculture unless something goes wrong: food contamination, chemical or manure spills, fires, processing or harvest injuries. An information vacuum exists, and producers realize it’s going to be filled one way or the other.

Most powerful story

Pearmine Farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley started a Facebook page last summer. Followers would have learned how rain delayed the farm’s corn harvest, when the harvest resumed and that Molly Pearmine McCarger’s husband got an elk during the fall hunt. Nothing earth-shattering or even political, but it didn’t have to be, says Pearmine McCarger, who runs the farm with her brother, Ernie Pearmine.

“They see what it’s like day to day or month to month, a day in the life of a family farm,” she says. “The ups and downs, the struggles and the good stuff.

“That’s exactly it,” Pearmine McCarger says. “We are human. There’s a face and a family behind the food that miraculously shows up in the grocery store.”

Putting a face on farming is a national effort. The AgChat Foundation trains producers to use social media and connect with consumers on a personal level.

“One of things we’ve really seen is a big push to have a conversation around food as opposed to here’s my facts and here’s your facts,” says Emily Zweber, AgChat’s executive director and part of a Minnesota dairy family. The group’s founding farmers “wanted to be the ones telling their story,” Zweber says.

“That’s the most powerful story to tell: your own.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is among those urging producers to speak up. In a November 2013 talk at the University of Nebraska’s Rural Futures Conference, Vilsack said people “don’t quite get what’s going on on the farm because we don’t talk to them, so they get some pretty crazy ideas.”

“Now is the time for us to re-emphasize, re-educate and remind America of the importance of rural America,” Vilsack said, according to the university news service.

In a January 2014 interview with Grower On-Line, Florida blueberry grower and labor manager Michael Hill said social media are “free marketing tools” that can be used to have “personal conversations with consumers, buyers and even environmental groups.”

“From a social media perspective, it’s unfortunate how far behind ag is as an industry,” Hill said, according to Grower On-Line.

Oregon grass seed grower Marie Bowers Stagg makes the case on her blog, OregonGreen. In a 2012 post, she said she was tired of being “bullied” by organizations that lack sound science but want to dictate agriculture policy and regulations.

“There’s one way to stop it,” Bowers Stagg wrote. “With EVERY farmer, rancher and forester telling their story as much as possible. I don’t care if you tweet it, Facebook it, blog it, email it, pen write it or speak it, just please tell your story and why you do what you do every day.”

In mid-February, Bowers Stagg testified to the Oregon Legislature in opposition to a bill that would mandate labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients. She then posted her testimony on her blog.

Lauren Montgomery, communications officer with the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, says social media can be a “gift and a curse at the same time.”

“Now our producers have additional modes where they can be their own storytellers, but it makes it that much more easy for adversaries to do the story telling,” she says.

Nonetheless, she believes those involved in animal agriculture can benefit by establishing relations with consumers who want to be closer to food producers.

“It’s a pro-active effort,” she says. “So when an adversary group comes out and says (livestock producers) do horrible things to their animals, consumers will say, ‘Well, not the guy I buy my beef from.’”

In the case of Willamette Egg Farms, Satrum says he wanted to get out in front of legislation or ballot measures that would impose cage-size regulations on his industry.

Unique partnership

“If you go on a Google search and put in chicken houses, all you see is very negative images and disturbing video,” he says. “We really felt like it was not telling the whole story. We felt like we had to bring cameras in and actually show a balanced picture of what we did if we expected to win anyone over to our ideas.”

Satrum struck what might seem like an unusual partnership. Working with the Oregon Humane Society, the company supported legislation in 2011 that increases cage sizes over a 15-year period, giving the industry time to phase in expensive infrastructure changes.

Sharon Harmon, OHS director, says she remains proud of the agency's working relationship with Willamette Egg Farms. A copy of the state legislation, she says, hangs on her office wall.

The next step was to take Willamette Egg Farms’ story to the broader public. For that, the company teamed up with Harvest PR, a Portland public relations firm that has come to specialize in agricultural work. Its other clients include the Agri-Business Council of Oregon, USA Pears and Norpac Foods, the processing co-op in Salem.

Amy Wood, managing director of Harvest’s Portland office and a partner in the company, says producers often are too busy or too humble to step into the limelight.

“The risk is always greater to not tell your story,” Wood says. “In Willamette’s case, they realized there were going to be other messages out there about hen welfare, and they had a chance to have dialog directly with consumers for the first time.

“Greg never hired PR firms to sell more eggs,” Wood says.

Instead, the company worked to build relationships, including with the news media. One of the results was a 2013 article in which Satrum explained the features of two new “cage free” hen houses, each of which cost $1 million. The hens have nesting areas and perches that run the length of the buildings, and birds are free to hop down to the floor to socialize and scratch. Programmable LED lighting gradually simulates night and day, and the red hue calms the hens. A conveyor belt automatically removes most waste, and the feed, water and egg collection systems are automated as well.

Satrum believes the company is headed in the right direction in its public give-and-take.

“I’ve got to say, we were under a lot of pressure,” he says. “We were reacting to a huge challenge; there was a little bit of desperation involved.

“We’re pretty good at raising chickens and making eggs, but in terms of talking to the media, we’ve got a lot to learn,” he says.

“So far, so good.”


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