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Welcome to Episode 32 of The Spokesman Speaks podcast. This episode (hosted by Delaney Howell) provides livestock farmers tips for handling opposition to their operations.
Hannah Thompson-Weeman (Vice President of Communications for the Animal Agriculture Alliance) offers her insights into how livestock farmers can build local trust proactively, and Story County farmer Eric Henry shares his first-hand experience handling local opposition and developing allies.
- Click here to view the transcript + Narrator: Welcome to The Spokesman Speaks a podcast from Iowa's leading agricultural new source. Brought to you by the Iowa Farm Bureau. Now here's your host.
Delaney Howell: Hello and welcome to the February 10th edition of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. I'm your host, Delaney Howell and I'm excited to be joining you for this episode. For those of you who don't know me, I grew up on a diversified crop and livestock farm near Columbus Junction in Southeastern Iowa. I also podcast myself with the Ag News Daily Podcast and I'm active in a variety of other agricultural ventures. So like a lot of you, agriculture is at the heart of who I am and what I do. I look forward to bringing you those ag stories that matter to you and your business through The Spokesman Speaks Podcast over the next few weeks. This week's episode, however, is all about livestock, which is something I'm quite familiar with, having grown up on a farm with everything from cattle and pigs to goats and even chickens. While livestock often presents a great opportunity to bring that next generation back to the family farm, it can also unfortunately attract criticism from neighbors next door to anti ag groups from all over the country. As the Vice President of Communications for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, Hannah Thompson-Weeman is well versed in the opposition that livestock farmers face and the most effective ways to deal with that opposition. Hannah recently spoke at the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers Farming for the Future Conference. Afterwards Farm Bureau's very own Caitlyn Lamm caught up with Hannah to discuss that advice she shared. Let's listen in.
Caitlyn Lamm: Hannah, thank you so much for joining us today for The Spokesman Speaks Podcast. I follow you on Twitter so it's great to finally meet you in real life. And can you tell me more about the Animal Ag Alliance and your role with the organization?
Hannah Thompson-Weeman: The Animal Ag Alliance is a nonprofit organization and our mission is to bridge the communication gap between farm and fork. We were started back in 1987 so we've been working in this area for more than three decades now and everything we do falls in three areas. Connect, engage and protect. The connect part is bringing together everyone in animal agriculture. So we represent all the different segments of the industry, all the different commodities as well as companies, associations, trade groups, checkoffs, commodity organizations, animal health companies, nutrition, genetics, really anyone who's part of that process of raising animals, keeping them healthy and getting them to the end consumer is who we have within our membership. And we bring those members together to talk about issues that are impacting all of us and how the Alliance can speak with a united voice on behalf of the entire industry. The engaged part of our mission is when we do reach outside the industry to engage with key audiences. The key focus areas that we do engage on are animal welfare. That's really been our bread and butter, our main focus since the beginning. So correcting myths and misconceptions and making sure there's some balance in the public conversation out there about how animals are raised, how they're treated on farms, things like responsible antibiotic use, housing systems, all those type of topics. More and more today we're engaging more in that sustainability arena. So the environmental impact of animal agriculture is a huge conversation, both from a large scale level of what's our greenhouse gas emissions impact, all of that to more of a local level and those public health conversations. So what animal agriculture and sustainability is increasingly an area of effort for us. And then lastly, protect and that is our monitoring of activist organizations. Unfortunately, there are individuals and groups out there who are opposed to what we do in animal agriculture. For them, it's not about how the animals are raised, it's not about how well we're doing, animal welfare standards, sustainability standards, environmental regulations. For this group of people they just don't believe there's any way to responsibly and ethically raise animals for food. So our organization monitors those groups. We have profiles on over 120 different organizations who are working in this space to really undermine our reputation and encourage our consumers to not support animal agriculture and not support our products.
Caitlyn Lamm: And I want to go back to what you were talking about with activist groups. You know, we have some here in Iowa and they are very vocal. But I think sometimes we get really excited, not in like the, I just got thrown a surprise party excited, but worked up excited about activist groups and we kind of forget that sometimes the opposition is coming right next door. So are you finding the same is true as you travel the United States?
Hannah Thompson-Weeman: It's very important for us in animal agriculture to really understand what kind of questions, concerns we're getting, where are they coming from and what's motivating them. Because again, there are those extremists who are opposed to what we do. They don't support what we do. For those groups, we are never going to appease them, teaching them, showing them the farm, answering their questions. It's never going to get us anywhere because they've already determined that there's no way we can be doing what we're doing, raising animals for food that could be responsible. So unless you're willing to say, okay, I'm knocking down the hog barns and we're converting all to soybeans, you're never going to appease those extremist groups. There is however, a much larger segment of the population that is commonly referred to as we do as the movable middle. And those are our neighbors. Those are those restaurant and retail brand decision makers. Those are local regulators or elected officials. Those are people that, they're not from animal agriculture. They don't have that inbred knowledge of the industry. They haven't grown up in it or been educated in it through their studies like most of us have in the industry. They don't have that activist extreme mindset, but again, they don't have that in inbound knowledge of the industry to kind of sort through what's fact and what's fiction. That large majority that's in the middle of those two extremes is exactly who's being targeted by activist groups with misinformation because they know that they do have that disconnect. There is a gap between farm and fork and that's exactly what they want to manipulate and take advantage of with very underhanded tactics and very inaccurate depictions of what we do on our farms and our commitment to being good neighbors and being responsible stewards of our land and animals. So it's important for us to figure out who we're talking to. Don't waste your breath on the extremists that are only trying to get you to say something they can use against you. But we do need to be investing our time and our resources in those people that fall in the middle because if we aren't there answering their questions, addressing their concerns, taking them seriously, that other extreme will certainly do that. And they'll fill in that gap with a version of animal agriculture that we certainly do not agree with and does not depict reality. So it's really important for us to not dismiss any question or concern or think that anyone that has real concerns about farming and how we farm is an activist. That's not really how it works. We've got to figure out who they are, where their question is coming from, and how we can talk to them human to human, find our shared values and figure out how to move forward in a productive way.
Caitlyn Lamm: Absolutely. And we know in Iowa being number one in hog production, that that's particularly important for our farmers who are thinking about building livestock into their family farm or expanding livestock to get ahead of those negative messages. And luckily the commodity organizations here in Iowa have banded together to create the Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers. And their role is to help farmers navigate the 200 plus pages of rules and regulations that farmers must've bide by when constructing a building. But also a big piece of what they do is helping farmers approach their neighbors and talk about what's going to happen when this hog barn goes up and to navigate through those concerns. So how have you seen the importance of that farmer to neighbor or farmer to community communication grow and do you have any first step advice for farmers who are going to be approaching that situation?
Hannah Thompson-Weeman: We've certainly at the Alliance seen the importance of building those relationships grow immensely and the most important part of that is doing it proactively. That's the biggest piece of advice I would have is that we can't wait until there's a petition around or there's a negative news story or someone's opposing us to do that groundwork of building those relationships. In reputation management we have this idea of the trust bank, so every time you have a positive interaction with someone, whether it's dropping by sending out a farm newsletter, speaking at a local civic organization, sponsoring your local softball team, you're building up the balance in your trust bank, you're making deposits to that account. That way, if there's ever a situation where you're called into question or you're wanting to expand and you need to go through all these hurdles, you need people to trust you so you have a balance built up that you can draw from if you've done the work, the groundwork of building up your trust bank. If you have done nothing or even worse, if you already have a bad reputation, you're going to be starting from zero and going into the negatives because you've got nothing to draw against. So that's why we think it's so critically important that we're doing this proactively. You do not want to wait until someone has heard something negative and you're coming from a point of defending yourself. Engaging is always easier, always more effective than defending. I know a lot of people don't really get into animal agriculture to do communications. You didn't start a farm because you wanted to do some of the things that I do, but if you want to be in business and you want your market to stay there, you can't afford to not have engaging with your community, being a part of your business plan and being a part of your daily operations because that's really how critical it is. People around you have a very clear impact on your ability to do business the way that you want to, expanding if you want to, anything like that. So you've really got to put in the time and invest in those relationships and it will pay off down the line.
Caitlyn Lamm: And that's really great advice, especially as we keep hearing people talk about the social license to operate. And I love your analogy of the trust bank and I wish that you could like go online and check and see where you're at. See if you need to do more in the community. Yeah, that'd be awesome. But I know that sometimes we really focus on the worst of the worst and unfortunately there are situations out there where a family was putting up a livestock barn and it just ended up maybe in litigation or the family somehow garnered a bad reputation in the community for whatever reason it may be. But there are also some really good stories out there of farmers who have done it well. And are you seeing more of those stories come through as farmers are more willing to go out there and talk about their livestock family farms?
Hannah Thompson-Weeman: I think the silver lining to the fact that our industry has really been facing issue after issue after issue is that people are learning from what other farmers have gone through and taking those lessons and applying them in their own operation. One example comes with engaging with law enforcement. That's one recommendation that we have is just making sure your local law enforcement knows about your operation, knows what you do because unfortunately they get a lot of complaints from people who aren't sure what they're looking at. And in some instances, in some areas, there have been massive protests on farms that law enforcement have had to come and help deal with those. And we've seen a dramatic difference in the way those situations play out when there was proactive engagement and conversation with law enforcement and when there wasn't. But something we do always encourage people to keep in mind is the vast majority of our consumers out there, including your neighbors, including your elected officials, whoever might be posing a challenge to you, they enjoy animal eating animal products. So eating meat, drinking milk, eating beef, eating pork, eating eggs, all of those things. The vast majority, 95% of Americans include those in their diet and we actually have been setting records for meat consumption in the past few years and are on track projected to do that again in 2020 despite all the hype we're hearing about how everyone's going vegan, no one supports animal agriculture, everyone's eating all these alternatives. So it's very important for us to keep that in mind. And I think that can really fuel your positive engagement is just remembering that people aren't innately against you. There are negative forces out there that want them to be, but you do have some great information to share and they're predisposed to want to support you based on the fact that they already like the product that you're raising. So, use that to really motivate you and try not to get caught up in the negativity.
Caitlyn Lamm: And that's a great point because we know that, well here in Iowa we have Bacon Fest, which is a whole entire festival devoted to people's favorite cut of pork. But we know there's tons of surveys out there that say people are just more interested in knowing where their food comes from, but then also surveys do say that people have a great amount of trust in farmers so sometimes I think we do get bogged down in those negatives and we forget that in general people really do enjoy agriculture, especially here in Iowa and they do have that trust in farmers.
Hannah Thompson-Weeman: And I think that point underscores why we need farmers to be in this conversation. Again, I think sometimes there's this notion, well the Farm Bureau is doing that or Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers is doing that. The Animal Ag Alliance is doing that work so I don't need to, I can just stay home and I can just farm. Unfortunately that's not the case. Again, farmers are way more trusted than association executives than large companies, farmers and ranchers themselves are who have high levels of trust ratings. So we need you to be in this conversation, especially in your local communities. You being their neighbor and being part of the community and a real person they can relate to and has history in the area carries so much more weight than anything that industry organizations or companies might be able to do. So we're here to support you, give you resources, give you advice any way we can help on different levels, but we absolutely need farmers to be part of this conversation and part of this engagement because they are who is most trusted and their words carry much more impact than any of the rest of us.
Delaney Howell: Wow. That was really powerful. I liked how Hannah put that. Engaging your community and neighbors should be part of your business plan as a livestock farmer because that kind of commitment to fostering relationships is what builds trust over time. One farmer who has taken that advice to heart is Eric Henry who grows row crops and raises livestock in Story County. Eric was also a panelist at the Farming for the Future Conference where he talked about building those relationships and responding to local opposition to his new livestock barn. Caitlyn Lamm tracked down Eric after his panel and talked about those lessons he learned from firsthand experience.
Caitlyn Lamm: Eric, thank you so much for joining us. Can you please tell us a bit about your family farm?
Eric Henry: Sure. Longview Farms would have been started by the Henry family northeast of Nevada, Iowa. I currently would be the fourth generation alongside my oldest brother Scott. And we were just a row crop operation up until this last year when we had got into the contract finishing hogs.
Caitlyn Lamm: And in 2018 you guys started the process of putting up some of those hog barns. And within the community you can say maybe it created a little bit of a stir and it seemed like there were many people who were in support of your family and knew the integrity that your family had and that you would do the right thing. And then there were some people who just weren't sure. So going through that process, I guess, what surprised you most and were you ready for some of that criticism that was headed your way?
Eric Henry: Yeah so to kinda backup on that my oldest brother Scott has had some experience through previous work going through permitting hog facilities. So, we knew that it was going to be contentious and I mean we live in Story County, so we've seen when past barns have gone through that a lot of public comment was said and heard and certain activist groups did get involved. So we knew it was going to be kind of contentious. But as a family we believed we were doing the right thing and enabling my brothers and I to start investing in production agriculture and also kind of as a way to allow me to return to our family farming operation. So we felt really grounded as a family. We knew it was going to be tough, but we chose to go through obviously. And yeah, there was always some new surprises along the way. Good and bad. I mean some people, neighbors that you thought would be really concerned were actually very excited for us cause it was allowing kind of the next generation of the neighborhood to come back and be involved. And those conversations were always great and fun. And then, I mean there were some people that were not supportive of the ideas and kind of going through that we just, we had to learn how to, while we were being open and honest, allow others to be open and honest with us and how we could then take that and not try to spin it for us, but just say, hey, we, we hear you right now. Just we ask that you will trust us through this. And a lot of those conversations were not very fun at the time but looking back have been rewarding.
Caitlyn Lamm: That's great. And I had actually attended one of the public hearings that you and your family were at. And you know, sometimes when you're in that situation there isn't a dividing line like in the room, like who's for and who's against. So it can be hard to tell where people land. And so I was sitting next to a woman and on a whim I asked her out of curiosity, so why are you here? Are you concerned? Are you in support? And she turns to me and says, really quietly, well please don't hate me. But I'm the mother of Eric and Scott who are putting up the barns. And my first reaction was, Oh my goodness, this poor lady, she was so sweet, but she was worried I wasn't going to like her because you guys were putting up barns. So there must have been some hardship maybe for the family members, your family members going through this process. So how did you guys work through that? Maybe some of the rumors that weren't true and trying to be open with people who did have concerns.
Eric Henry: Yes. So there was a ton of stuff that was said on social media and we just chose to never look. And so but you still heard through the grapevine what was said and we always, as a family tried to just say, Hey, we don't really need to hear that right now. We're confident as a family and what we're doing. And we were choosing to kind of not get dragged into a lot of the negativity that was being expressed on a social media platform where, I mean, people can be very rude. So, but we also the local newspaper chose to come and talk to us. And we agreed to that and we were very transparent through that whole process and we even gave out our phone number in that. And so this is after we had even, we had gone around and left messages or talk to neighbors that we chose to put our phone number out. So for community people to call us and if they had questions ask. And there were a few that did. And so we had them out to our farm office and sat down across the table and had some of those discussions. Like I said earlier, we're not trying to persuade them, we're just, we're allowing them to express their concerns and then hopefully they allow us to express our goals through the project.
Caitlyn Lamm: And talk about transparency because I remember reading that article that you're talking about and you guys put a phone number in there. And I was like, wow, I think that's the first time I've ever seen someone say, Hey, here's a phone number call me if you have questions. That was an incredible, but now at this point, so some of your barns are already constructed. Has a lot of that excitement died down or is there still some residual things out there?
Eric Henry: Well here kind of why the buildings were being built. I mean there's some comments then that people were already smelling the pig smell and it's just, I mean there's just some of that stuff you just kind of have to have to just choose not to listen to or laugh off. But as been fun to have some of the neighbors we chose to kind of give private tours to the barns beforehand and it was fun answering their questions and once again kind of saying here's that concern you expressed to us, this is how this part of the facility or this is how our management staff is going to address that concern. And that was a fun rewarding process. And it kinda just, it goes back to my brothers and I, we really did ride on kind of the reputation of the Henry family from my past generations were kind of, I mean, our integrity has guided us through everything and we have kind of a philosophy that, you know, people might not really agree or like what we're doing, but they're going to have to at least say, well, they went about doing that the right way. And that's, that really kind of helped us push through so those hard and tough situations, but we knew that we were doing the best way we could.
Caitlyn Lamm: And so, it sounds like even though it can be a difficult process, there were a lot of positives that came out of it. You saw some community members rally behind you guys and you got an opportunity to talk more about, you know, pig farming and your family farm. Was there anything else that surprised you that was of a positive nature?
Eric Henry: Yeah, like I said, it was fun hearing those people that you, I mean you grow up with and you walk into Fareway or your local grocery store and one of your friend's mothers comes up to you and just says, Hey, we're really glad you're back. And we're glad that your family did what you guys needed to do to bring that next generation back to our town. Those are the fun conversations and just to know that we have the support of the people that we do.
Caitlyn Lamm: That's awesome. And for any other young farmers particularly, who are looking at building a livestock building what would you suggest to them in terms of communication and that kind of proactive instead of reactive commitment?
Eric Henry: Yeah. You just commit to doing it right. Follow kind of what Iowa Farm Bureau and the Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers use their advice and take that to heart. And I would say also though, don't let other people that might disagree with your plans keep you from doing your plans. I mean that was, that was a big thing for us was like I said, we knew it was going to be controversial, but we chose to ultimately, I mean go through with these hog barns and we're grateful that we were able to do that. But yeah, just be open and honest. I mean, these people are your neighbors, they're people that you care about or they care about you and you might as well try to maintain positive relationships with your community. So yeah, I'd say don't let anyone kind of stop you from falling through in your actions but choose to do it what you define as the right way to do it and hold those values and ride on the support of others and listen to the concerns and figure out how to address those of those people that might disagree but ride through on the excitement of the project cause getting involved in production agriculture and specifically within livestock as a young farmer is exciting. It's fun and I'm grateful for the opportunity that I've had.
Delaney Howell: That was great. Thanks for sharing that story, Eric. Dealing with those tough questions and opposition can be difficult, but you also heard Eric say that some of those questions actually turned into positive learning opportunities for his community. Speaking of learning opportunities, as we start to wrap up this week's episode of The Spokesman Speaks Podcast, we've got a great opportunity for you. We want you to mark your calendars for a unique educational conference on March 28th in Cedar Rapids. Have you ever considered growing a non-traditional crop like hops or raising livestock for a niche market? Iowa Farm Bureau's new Acres of Opportunity Conference is your chance to learn about unique options for your farming operation. Remember it's March 28th in Cedar Rapids. More details will be coming soon, so watch for more information in future episodes of this podcast and on IowaFarmBureau.com. Well, that's it for this episode of The Spokesman Speaks, but if you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to hit subscribe and tune in for our next episode on February 24th. So until then, I hope that each day gives you an opportunity to learn something new and improve your farm not only for your generation but for those generations to come. Thanks for reading The Spokesman and thanks for tuning in with us to The Spokesmen Speaks Podcasts.
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About The Spokesman Speaks Podcast
Since 1934, The Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman has been Iowa’s leading agriculture news source, and today it is the largest circulation ag newspaper in Iowa. While the Spokesman newspaper is available exclusively to Iowa Farm Bureau members, The Spokesman Speaks podcast is available publicly, reaching farmers on-the-go with stories that matter to them. You can find episodes of the podcast here or subscribe and listen in your favorite podcast app, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, TuneInRadio, or Radio.com.
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