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Defined by critics, big ag restarts conversation
"It's a heck of a lot more convincing when a mom says something than when a brand does," says Wescott, who says he has worked with several major farm and agriculture companies to help them reach out to consumers, especially moms.
Other farm groups, like Illinois Farm Families, are inviting moms to tour the fields. Tim Maiers of the Illinois Pork Producers Association says the group has found that consumers generally trust farmers, but they have a lot of questions about farming methods.
One of the moms, Amy Hansmann, says that though she remains concerned about the amount of processed foods and chemicals in the food supply, her experiences touring conventional farms with Illinois Farm Families changed her thinking. She was particularly amazed by the big farmers' use of technology and attempts to be sustainable.
Hansmann says that before the tour, her perception from the media was that these big farmers were "evil capitalists" who focused only on their businesses and not on the care of the land or animals.
"What I found couldn't be further from the truth," she says.
Chris Chinn, a blogger and a fifth generation farmer and mom from Clarence, Mo., is trying to reach out to others like Hansmann, too. Chinn, 38, carves 20 minutes or more out of her schedule every day to get on Twitter, comment on online articles and update her blog. Her internet service can be spotty in rural Clarence, but she sometimes types out entire blog posts on her smartphone and tries to respond to every Tweet that is directed to her — some of them nasty.
"We've been late to the game, and we realized that if we don't start sharing, people are going to start forming opinions about you," says Chinn, who is working with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, formed by more than 80 farm groups to try to improve agriculture's message.
Chinn says she started using social media because of animal rights campaigns that have aimed to eliminate gestation crates that she and other hog farmers use for pregnant sows. Hog farmers say the crates are important to keep the pigs and their piglets safe; animal rights groups say they are inhumane and have pushed state legislatures to get rid of them.
Chinn says her smaller farm could go under if she was forced to get rid of the crates, because she and her husband wouldn't be able to get a loan for new equipment. She believes that if people knew more about these operations, they would understand.
Some critics say that dialogue isn't going to be enough, arguing that the companies will have to make some real concessions in addition to defending what they do if they are going to win over consumers. They point to Monsanto's expensive campaigns against mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in California and Washington State. The company won both fights.
Fighting the mandatory labels has "made it look like big ag has more to hide," says Gary Hirshberg, a co-founder of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm. He has worked in the past few years on the labeling campaign. Hirshberg and other critics have argued that Monsanto and retailers should just accept the labels and move on.
Some farmers have decided that responding to consumer preference is the smartest route for their businesses. Nestled in low hills along the Missouri River just west of St. Louis, John Ridder has a 1,500 acre farm and a herd of 200 cattle. His wife, Heidi, recently created a Facebook profile for their cattle ranch, and the two have worked with the Missouri Beef Industry Council to reach out to consumers.
They say they are shocked by some of the misperceptions about agriculture on the Internet, like the assumption that most cattle operations are so-called "factory farms."
At the same time, they realize they are somewhat powerless in the conversation.
John says he stopped using growth hormones in his cattle because consumers don't want them. "We don't do it because we don't want to have to explain how we do it," he says.
Many farmers are taking that a step further and taking advantage of the consumer trends — labeling foods as natural or local.
"It's the first time any of us have seen anything like this," says Ken Colombini of the National Corn Growers Association. "The more that kind of demand builds, the more we're going to have to change what we're doing."