It was 2015 when I had a serious wake-up call. Dairy farmers like me were facing lawsuits filed by Charlie Tebbutt. Several said if they were sued they’d just quit farming.

That shook me up because I remembered a logger at a Western Dairy Conference speaking on the “spotted owl” issue and how much it cost the logging industry. He told us, “We thought we were protected by the courts.” But, he said, it was the court of public opinion that really mattered. He warned us, with the timber battle over, the environmental non-profits need a new target to raise funds to keep them in business. “Industrial agriculture” was it.

That means me, and if you are a family farmer, it also means you.

In Western Washington, like most urban areas along the Pacific coast, our voters are decidedly “progressive.” Our elected leaders try to “out-left” each other with policies and ideas that are often harmful to our farms and futures. Those environmental groups these voters respect are telling them we are the bad guys, we wear the “black hats” on things like protecting water, air quality, animals and our own employees. Union activists paint all farmers as tyrants and cheats. Never mind the facts, these bad guy stories are necessary if they are going to raise the money to keep their jobs.

The media loves it. Social media feeds on it. “Black hat” stories sell papers and get eyeballs locked onto phone and tablet screens.

This is a new world to most of us farmers. Facebook is full of vegan and animal rights bullies. Reporters show up on our farms looking only to capture us running and hiding to make us look guilty. A state senator from downtown Seattle introduces a bill that accuses farmers of keeping slaves, and the Democratic labor committee endorses it. Tribal leaders line up with environmental groups to make false accusations about farm pollution – and use taxpayer dollars to promote it and lobby for bad legislation.

The real trouble is, too many voters are buying this story. We see that not only in wrong-headed laws and regulations but in surveys that show the trust that the public and consumers have always had in farmers is rapidly going away. There are a lot of farm associations that do a good job of informing legislators, but if those elected leaders and regulatory folks don’t think we have the public and voters behind us, they’ll listen to those seeking to add the costs and bureaucratic burdens that will eventually put us out of business.

What I learned, starting back with that 2015 meeting, is that we can change this picture. We started a group in our farming area called Whatcom Family Farmers. We got berry farmers, potato farmers, dairy farmers and other farm types to join together. That unity was critically important as we soon found. A local tribe hired the anti-dairy lawyer Charlie Tebbutt but they were told: “You sue one farmer, you sue us all. It led to a partnership with the tribe that has been positive for all in the community – except the lawyer.

We found by speaking out loudly and using the powerful tools of social media and websites, we could make a difference – a big difference. A local environmental group aligned with the lawyer has pulled back after their false accusations were exposed. Both red and blue politicians seek out our support and views. Farmers report a different attitude among regulators. Activists who gained major coverage on TV and newspapers have been shown to be dishonest. No honest reporter wants to knowingly publicize lies.

Partnering with farmers across Washington state we formed Save Family Farming with affiliates in Eastern Washington and Skagit County. Unity of farmers is very hard to come by, but we are convinced that our ability to tell our story to the public and be heard by those in power depends on that unity. And it depends on speaking out loudly and boldly, even if that makes some uncomfortable.

I understand the discomfort and fear experienced by some. I struggle with it myself but now I know the future of our farm and our ability to pass it on to our children demands this kind of hard work. If you are reading this you have a clear choice: stand on the sidelines and watch fellow farmers be falsely attacked or unite with us and defend. We are a part of the farming community, let’s stand up for those within our community. Start speaking out loud and clear to those who will decide our future: the voters living in our cities.

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Rich and Ann Appel and family, along with Rich’s brother and family, are owners of Appel Farms, milking about 700 cows and producing artisan cheese under the Appel Farms Cheese brand in Ferndale, Wash. Rich is the president of Whatcom Family Farmers and represents this group on the Save Family Farming board. He is the recipient of the Vim Wright “Bridge Builder Award” from the Washington Conservation Commission for his work in building bridges to the environmental community.

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