An appeal for a stronger unified public voice

In the colder and, for some, quieter winter months farmers have a bit more time for reflection and planning. As we look ahead toward a new year, generating a stronger and more unified public voice needs to be near the top of the list of things for farmers to do.

Every day we see evidence of the growing impact of anti-farm activists. In states like Washington, Oregon and California most elected leaders are elected by left leaning, progressive urban voters. Those voters are farther removed from our farms than ever and very susceptible to the anti-farm voices. Issues like water quality, water supply, climate change, public health, and worker justice gain a ready hearing by the younger urban voters. The public license to operate enjoyed by farmers is threatened by these few activists with outsized influence on urban voters and the government and judicial leaders they elect.

Farmers have an exceptionally strong base of public support to operate from. Surveys repeatedly show voters strongly support farmers and ranchers. After all, city voters do eat. But that important base is being eroded. Farmers are not protecting that base, nor using it to counter the anti-farm voices. Harmful legislation and regulation will accelerate unless that changes.

There are three understandable reasons for this situation.

First, engaging in the rough and tumble of today’s political public conversation is new and uncomfortable for a great many farmers.

Second, farmers are most effective in the public arena when unified, but unifying farmers is difficult at best — herding cats comes to mind.

Third, farmers have looked to their associations and farm groups to do the tough work of farm advocacy and while they often do an excellent job of behind the scenes political lobbying, the critical role of building public support is either something they don’t do or don’t do particularly well.

Product commissions, in Washington state at least, are hampered in this important work by restrictions on how state funds may be used. When public opinion is mostly generated by the internet and social media and when traditional media outlets more and more specialize in public anger and outrage, the game must be played by the new rules, not the old ones. Activists play well in this arena, farmers and farm groups, not so much.

There are many positive signs that farmers are learning they have to engage more in the public conversation. Younger farmers, understandably, are taking the lead by getting on social media and willingly participating in opportunities to reach the public. In Washington four dairy farmers courageously faced some of the worst anti-animal agriculture activists could throw at them in a Facebook Live series sponsored by Dairy Farmers of Washington.

Unifying farmers is harder given the independent nature of farmers and some degree of competition. Too often farmers not currently at the forefront of activists’ attacks prefer to sit back and watch those being attacked out of fear of drawing attacks on themselves. This is particularly true in the area of activism involving farmworkers. There is also a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” My response is often to quote Ben Franklin at the start of the Revolutionary War: “We must indeed all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The good news is that this reluctance is slowly giving way to a unified effort. Berry, dairy and seed potato farmers in northwest Washington state have joined together in Whatcom Family Farmers and their experience shows the immense value of a unified public voice.

Farmers are learning that to counter the effectiveness of their activist opponents, they must become activists themselves. That means they must eagerly enter the public discussion of critical issues facing farmers. Activists are very adept at claiming the moral high ground and generating anger and outrage against those they say are harming the public interest. Farmers must understand that their mission of providing food for the world in an increasingly responsible and sustainable way does represent the moral high ground. But they must actively and publicly defend that.

Activists effectively use both social media and traditional news media to amplify outrage against farmers. One look at the “What’s Upstream” campaign makes clear their dependence on false accusations, distorted science, misleading visuals and even public funding to build public outrage in support of anti-farm legislation and regulations. As activists farmers must never lie, distort or manipulate, but must be willing to point out those who are harming the public interest and engage new and traditional media in carrying the pro-farmer message.

A trend we might call “pro-agtivism” is emerging. Unified, engaged farmers are reaching out to the public to counter the false claims and communicate the good farmers are doing for our families, communities, states, nation and world. May this pro-agtivism grow and thrive in 2018.

Gerald Baron is the founder and executive director of Save Family Farming, a Washington state farm advocacy group initially formed to counter the What’s Upstream campaign. Whatcom, Skagit and Yakima Family Farmers groups are affiliated.

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