Expert urges producers to become advocates and dispel myths about animal agriculture

CLOSE WATCH The YouTube era means farmers “shouldn’t have anything on your operation that 
you wouldn’t like to have on YouTube or the six o’clock news”

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Farming is under the spotlight, and producers need to act accordingly, says the head of an Ontario farm group that tracks media coverage of agriculture.

“I always say that you shouldn’t have anything on your operation that you wouldn’t like to have on YouTube or the six o’clock news,” said Crystal Mackay, executive director of Food and Farm Care.

Since 2000, the organization — formerly the Ontario Farm Animal Council — has surveyed the Canadian public to ask them about their feelings and knowledgeable of food and farming. Only 10 per cent say they’re knowledge about food and farming, Mackay said at the recent AGM of Alberta Pork.

“The good news story is that Canadians have good overall impressions of agriculture and they have a lot of trust in their industry,” she said, adding Alberta’s farm sector gets the highest ranking in the surveys.

“People have a good impression of farmers, they respect you, and they think you’re credible spokespeople. But they don’t know who you are or what you do.”

The bad news is people don’t really care about science or studies, and tend to view animal livestock through the lens of pet owners, she added.

“You can see graphs about how much people spend on their pets and how much they care about animal welfare and they’re parallel lines, which shouldn’t surprise you.”

The survey also revealed the public is interested in farmers and food production, she said.

“Our research has shown that farmers, researchers and veterinarians are all very credible source people.”

She said people want to be able to trust farmers, and enjoy their food without feeling guilty. They are concerned about food safety and human health, followed by economics, the environment, and animal welfare.

It’s important for producers to know their critics and understand the agenda of animal rights advocates, she said.

“Animal rights groups use animal welfare arguments to try to advance their cause,” she said. “They do not believe in using animals for human benefit.”

Mackay’s organization collaborated with many groups, including Alberta Farm Animal Care, to develop a project called “The Ag Issues project.” The alliance has a team of people who can answer questions about any major topic, including animal activists and anti-biotech activists.

“We’re also the 911 centre that you hope you never have to call if there’s a problem, a protest or an illegal action on a farm,” she said.

Mackay said good animal welfare is one of the tools to fight animal rights activists, even though it might not be as flashy or aggressive.

“Negative outsells positive seven to one, and when we do a good job, we don’t make the news,” she said.

However, the media is now telling more positive, balanced stories about animal agriculture, she added.

Farm tour

Farm and Food Care helps dispel myths by taking media, chefs and culinary students on to Ontario farms. Their sold-out Toronto-area media tour took 50 journalists to conventional and organic operations.

“We position ourselves as the helpful experts on farming,” Mackay said.

The farm tours generated a lot of stories and helped to create strong relationships with the media, she said.

Her organization has also created a website — www.virtu — so people can see how things operate on Canadian farms, and a magazine called “The Real Dirt on Farming.”

It’s now working on “The Real Dirt on Farming” speaking tour, which will enable producers and business leaders of communities to meet each other. Mackay said producers need to be out there telling their stories and spreading good news.

“You can’t complain about activists telling your story if you don’t step up to the plate to tell it,” she said.

Producers need to be prepared to answer questions and should talk about their own farm and personal experiences, said Mackay.

“If something is in the media, you’ll probably get a question about it,” she said.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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