‘Big ag’ companies finding way to get out message

AFP Correspondent

CRYSTAL CITY, Va. (May 27, 2014) — Monsanto is on Twitter. Not just that, the agricultural biotechnology company has a “corporate engagement team” that uses social media and events to reach out to a millennial audience that, Janice Person, a member of that team, says “loves to hear multiple sides of the story.”
Person, along with a growing number of agricultural companies and farmers, uses these communication tools to bolster her company’s image and to fight back against the big-equals-bad mantra that can pervade online discussions about food today.
Person, a pair of farmers and the director of commodities for Illinois Farm Bureau shared their advice for how to connect with an audience that often has a lot of assumptions about their work during a panel discussion at the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s recent stakeholder summit focused on the millennial generation.
“You hear a lot about big and bad, but what we’re finding is millennials also love iPhones and Google,” which are big companies, Person said. “You need to have a conversation with them.”
Ray Prock, owner of Ray-Lin Dairy in California, said he started participating in social media after attending a conference and “sensing a change coming in how we needed to tell our story.”
He said social media was considered a threat to the dairy industry at the time, an avenue for rumors to spread as quickly as sound research. But he became convinced that abstaining from platforms like Twitter and Facebook would do his 550-cow farm more harm than good.
Prock now invites activists who protest against “factory farms” to come visit his for a new perspective.
They “walk away and say, ‘That’s not a factory farm,’” Prock said. “The reality is, farmers have always been recycling and being more sustainable, but why aren’t we telling that story?”
The panelists admitted that part of what’s fed the perception that big is bad is that farmers are being pitted against one another in an effort to attract new customers. Tamara Nelson, senior director of commodities for Illinois Farm Bureau, said people have begun to return to the land themselves, to grow their own tomatoes, which taste really good in the thick of summer.
“It just kind of happens on the other side that that must mean big is bad,” she said.
And marketing companies and farmers trying to sell more “natural” or organic products have used strong labels to distinguish themselves from conventional producers, the panelists said.
“I regret that people are marketing those specialty goods by saying big is bad,” said Emily Zweber, who runs an organic dairy farm and the AgChat Foundation, which helps farmers embrace social media.
Another panel discussion at the summit about the use of antibiotics brought up similar themes about how new labels and marketing approaches impact traditional brands.
John Stika, president of Certified Angus Beef, said his organization at first was concerned that introducing a natural line of products would imply that their existing line was “unnatural.”
“But what we found is that shoppers don’t shop one word. If you valued this production system, we wanted to provide you an option,” said Sitka, whose group began offering a natural brand free of antibiotics, growth promoters and animal byproducts at the request of retailers.
Dan Kish, head chef and vice president of food for Panera Bread Company, said his company chose to move toward using antibiotic-free chicken a decade ago to achieve a better taste. 
Joe Forsthoffer, director of corporate communications for Perdue Farms, Inc., said his company still sees its antibiotic-free product as a way to provide consumers choices. The company has reduced its use of antibiotics in the conventional line as well.
“We recognize that there is a significant concern over the use of antibiotics in agriculture,” Forsthoffer said. “We believe they should not be used in a way that contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans.”
He added that the company’s stance was somewhat of an evolution that started a dozen years ago. They realized public perceptions about what was going into the process of producing chickens was changing, and business practices needed to change, too.
“We found that you became better at what you do when you don’t have these tools as crutches,” Forsthoffer said, referring to previous use of arsenic and antibiotics. “When you get back to your basics of animal welfare and husbandry, you don’t need them as often.”