The behind-the-scenes effort to tell beef’s story

Besieged beef sector aims to fight hyperbole with facts

It can seem like the ‘beef is bad’ crowd is scoring all the points in the battle to influence consumer attitudes.

But the beef sector is fighting back — even if its efforts don’t get the same kind of headline-grabbing attention.

One of the main initiatives is being conducted by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association that seeks to amplify the efforts by other organizations, including provincial cattle commissions, Canada Beef, and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

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“This is something that the provinces saw as a very complementary type of program to what they were already doing in their communications departments,” said Jill Harvie, the CCA’s manager of public and stakeholder engagement. “We aim to help those who are out there representing the beef industry.”

A team was created a year ago to find more effective ways to tell the sector’s story — such as how grazing preserves habitat and how the sector’s environmental footprint has been shrinking.

“The first few months in the role, we were getting some messages out there but we were more so bombarded by a need to respond to things,” said Harvie. “Once we had proper funding (from checkoff dollars) for the program, we started aligning with so many people already doing great work. Now we’re trying to be the glue that brings everyone together.

“We have a more unified message, and that will become even clearer as we get further ahead.”

One of the goals is to be able to have people — both industry reps and everyday producers — be able to quickly and effectively respond to issues as they arise.

One project is called the Content Corral where various provincial organizations and groups such as the sustainable beef roundtable can upload everything from beef recipes to information about how cows benefit the environment. Up to 500 users, which can include producers, companies and organizations, are now able to access the material in the Content Corral.

People who want to access the website and use its material must first take a free online training course for those who want to become advocates for the beef sector. (For details on that training go to beefadvocacy.ca.)

The goal of this initiative is to help ranchers and others in the industry who are already great advocates to extend their reach.

“We’ve been doing training of advocates on Content Corral,” said Harvie. “So far, by looking at the metrics, there’s been great uptake, especially by those in the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program.”

Anywhere from 20 to 80 new pieces of content are uploaded every week, which can be shared by cattle organizations and individual advocates.

“We encourage people to get on there and be able to share content through Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook,” said Harvie. “What’s really great about it is that people can still put their hashtags on there, or put something that is tailored to their audience in with the post. It allows it to be shared more organically as well, so you actually get more viewers than you would if you just shared something on social media.”

The outreach team set up by the cattlemen’s association is also building links to conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“We’re also working with people we haven’t always typically worked with — like an environmental activist,” said Harvie. “We’ve been working with getting him to various ranches and research centres across the country when he was travelling.”

That environmentalist is Steven Lee, a climate change activist and an advocate for environmental policy for the United Nations. He is the executive director of the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship. It created the Three Percent Project, which aims to mobilize one million Canadian students (three per cent of the population) by going to schools and talking about the effect youth can have in the effort to combat climate change.

“We engaged with Steve to provide information about sustainable beef and sustainable beef practices,” said Harvie. “He was open to it.”

Lee toured beef operations (and one dairy) in the Maritimes, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, learning things such as how beef can be part of the climate solution by capturing carbon in grasslands. On the Alberta leg of his tour, he went to Water Valley and learned about how forages support bee populations, and visited Harvie’s ranch near Olds, where she showed him the watering systems and explained how the ranch got its sustainable beef certification.

“And then we went to visit Stephen Hughes in Longview, to cap it all off and see the beautiful area of Longview,” said Harvie. “I think that was pretty amazing. He really loved that. We’re going to continue to send information Steve’s way.”

The public engagement team has also produced tools tailored to broader audiences, which can be used at trade shows, for children’s projects, or at farmers’ markets. People can find more information at www.raisingcdnbeef.ca to learn facts about production, the environmental aspects of beef, sustainability and the nutritional benefits of beef.

“It’s a good way to have something there that is easy for anyone to access and not get bombarded by too much information,” she said.

The group is also working with the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, and Agriculture in the Classroom.

“We’re looking at ways we can have various tools that can be used for various curriculums across the country, and have that high-level, unified message,” said Harvie.

Focusing on the same key points is a major part of this advocacy work but equally important is the tone.

Many beef producers feel they are almost personally under attack — and it’s only natural to respond in an emotional way, she said.

But that tends to backfire.

“If we respond emotionally instead of with a well-thought-out, cool response without proper links (to information), we stand a chance to look defensive,” she said.

She advises producers to follow organizations such as Canada Beef and Alberta Beef Producers and imitate their responses to questions.

“Lift up the product, talk about the great attributes and have a positive story — then the general public will think about us in a positive way,” she said.

“If they see that everything we put out is defensive or negative; they might start thinking about us in a negative way.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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