DES MOINES, Iowa — Two dozen of the nation's largest and best-funded farm groups have formed a coalition to counter poor publicity that they say has led to some bad public policies and threatens farmers' ability to produce food for the world's population.
The groups have been alarmed by such things as the release of videos that show male chicks being put into grinders, egg-laying hens in battery cages and the mistreatment of hogs in large confinement operations. Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have used the videos to generate support for animal welfare laws. Meanwhile, crop farmers are fighting groups opposed to biotech crops or what environmentalists say is the overuse of fertilizers and other chemicals.
Farm groups including the National Corn Growers Association and National Pork Producers Council formed the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance in November to improve farmers' public image and advocate for what they describe as more farm-friendly policies. Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the alliance may help create more realistic expectations among consumers.
"So often people advocate for a utopian world and it's not doable," Cornely said. "Feeding the world requires us to kick up some dirt and create a few odors. That is just a reality of producing food and fiber that may not fit in with the utopian vision.
"The vast majority of people are reasonable people, they just need to know that you can't have the perfect world."
The alliance has yet to develop an action plan, but leaders said it will likely use social media such as Twitter and a public relations campaign to help consumers better understand how their food is produced. Public relations often involves news conferences or face-to-face conversations with consumers. Alliance spokeswoman Cindy Hackmann said an advertising campaign was unlikely.
"We need to have a conversation instead of plastering an ad on a billboard or in a magazine," she said.
The alliance can't lobby lawmakers because some of its members are so-called "check-off" groups established by the government to collect money from members for research and marketing, Hackmann said.
Animals rights and other groups have been pushing hard for tighter regulations, and farmers have been concerned by the passage of such laws as Proposition 2 in California, which requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs have enough room in their pens to lie down, stand up and turn around freely, and Arizona's ban on gestation crates, which restrict the movement of pregnant sows. Farmers claim the crates increase survival and weaning rates for piglets.
Hackmann said while some of the concerns raised by animal rights and other groups are legitimate, problem farmers are the exception, not the norm.
"I would estimate that 2 percent of farmers have issues, either not following good production practices or not following good environmental practices and unfortunately they are the ones picked up by the opposition," she said. "The opposition has taken that 2 percent and made them the poster children of agriculture."
Mark Maslyn, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, an alliance member, said the negative videos and other criticisms have begun to define farming in the public's mind – particularly when few Americans have ever been to a farm.
"It used to be most people's grandparents had a farm," Maslyn said. "Today we're generations removed from that, and people don't understand agriculture and what goes into producing food, fiber and fuel.
"There is that understanding gap by consumers at large, so they're susceptible to groups who have an agenda."
But as the farm groups put together their campaign, J.D. Hanson, a policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, recommended they take care in crafting the message they present.
"I would encourage them not to get themselves in a situation where they are seen as advocates of destroying wildlife and the environment," said Hanson, whose group has challenged the use of biotech crops, such as alfalfa and sugar beets. "Farmers need to make sure they are positioned where they are not saying 'we're going to pollute the environment and resist any testing for human health effects.'"
Cornely said the alliance's message will hopefully offset negative publicity about farming and allow consumers to make an informed decision about their food.
"The people who see the world differently than we do are masters at messaging and influencing the public and we have to play in that same arena," he said.
Social media are likely to play a significant role in the farmers' efforts. Last summer, a California dairy farmer and others started AgChat, to get more farmers to use YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter and other online sites to explain what they do on the farm and answer questions from the public.
Mike VerSteeg, a 37-year-old hog, corn and soybean farmer in northwest Iowa, said he frequently sends messages, or tweets, on Twitter, even from his tractor during spring planting and fall harvest.
"I like to let consumers know how much we care for our animals, because if they are well taken care of they produce a lot better," he said. "Consumers like to have a choice in the food they like to eat and farmers should have a choice in how we care for our animals."
Paul Shapiro, senior director for the Humane Society of the United States' End Factory Farming Campaign, said farmers' tweets or messages posted on the social networking site Facebook will have little impact on his group's efforts, which are typically aimed at large factory farms. Recently, it has been focused on those that use so-called battery cages, or small crates, to confine egg-laying hens.
"It doesn't matter what media they're using, defending practices most Americans consider indefensible is not a smart strategy for the ag industry," Shapiro said.