Producers must guard against animal activists, and at the same time be transparent for consumers
for The Fence Post
Bernard Rollins, Colorado State University, said agriculture is unique in that the general public is uninformed about production methods but still maintain strong opinions about those methods.
Rollins is unique because he is a professor of both philosophy and animal science. A University Distinguished Professor, Rollins bridges the gap between animal agriculture and consumers. This gap leaves agriculture in a position to show consumers that best practices are being utilized and if they aren’t, he said agriculture must be proactive and remedy the situation.
“Tell the truth, you know,” he said.
Dealing with animal rights activists, he said, can be a difficult task as reason is oftentimes not part of the equation. One activist came to Rollins a number of years ago with the request that he speak to ranchers and persuade them to build shelters for cattle to escape blizzards in.
“I said, ‘Lady, have you ever been on a ranch in North Dakota?’” he said. “You can have a 100,000-acre ranch there and where the snow collects is a function of the wind at a particular time.”
Rollins said one of the many ranchers he connects with later also explained that, as many cattlemen know, cattle will crowd and suffocate in a shelter in an attempt to escape blizzard conditions.
Rollins cited CSU as an example of an operation that has managed through an animal rights activist attack of sorts. A number of years ago, CSU was contacted by the Society of Animal Welfare administrators demanding to inspect the university’s laboratory facilities. He said they were given a tour of the entire facility.
“By the time they were done they said the only thing they could complain about was there’s not enough toys for the dogs,” he said.
The group ultimately provided additional toys, a move Rollins said stemmed from the facility being no worse than, likely their own facilities. For the university, opening their doors to an activist group was a positive experience to demonstrate how they were doing things correctly.
“People have all these crazy, outlandish beliefs, as you know,” he said. “The philosophy at CSU, from the president down, has been, if we’re ashamed of it, don’t do it.”
Another example Rollins cited was the debate surrounding the shipping of downer animals, or non-ambulatory animals, to slaughter. He posed the question of whether or not the practice is acceptable to a group of ranchers and one replied, “we don’t ship our mistakes, we eat them.”
Colorado, Rollins said, has strict laws against shipping downer animals and that’s something he is proud of the state for maintaining. Enforcement, he said, is a hit to the owner’s pocketbook.
In dealing with being accused of poor treatment of animals, Rollins said a producer must first decide if the allegations are true or false.
“If it’s true, say thank you and fix it,” he said. “If it’s false, show them. It’s hard to lose under those circumstances. You lose when you start a confrontation and lying.”
RURAL URBAN DIVIDE
Rollins said the divide between rural and urban Americans is growing and Americans, the vast majority who are generations removed from production agriculture, are inclined to believe that groups such as the Humane Society of the United States are among the most credible when it comes to animal agriculture.
“That’s terrible,” he said. “The most credible source should be the people doing it. This is hard to convince people for reasons of human nature. If you’re doing something wrong, admit it and fix it. Then you gain credibility.”
Rollins said it is equally important to show people how a problem will be rectified. Choosing to react without being defensive, he said, is vital.
“It’s against human nature, if people are accusing you, true or false, you want to be defensive but you know damn well that you don’t get anywhere being defensive,” he said. “What I’m saying is not easy. You have to swallow your pride and your distaste for guys with long hair but if the truth is under there, make it be known.”
Rollins said he has a deep appreciation for the animal science students he works with at CSU and, most of all, appreciates their honesty.
“Honesty is really good when you come from the kind of culture you can be honest about,” he said. “There are people who will tell you you’re out of your mind to go out in a storm for a calf or to stay up all night tending to a marginal calf. But why do you do it? It’s the right thing to do. That’s why it’s so easy to make a case for people in (the ranching) culture.”
Hannah Thompson-Weeman, Vice President of Communications, Animal Agriculture Alliance, is also working to bridge the gap between farm and fork. A non-profit organization, the alliance has the goal of communicating accurate, science-based information about animal agriculture to key audiences.
One of the alliance’s functions is monitoring the organizations that are opposed to animal agriculture, a move that gives producers insight into the strategies and tactics such groups employ in an effort to end animal agriculture.
“We monitor those groups and keep the industry informed so hopefully, we can mitigate their influence,” she said.
Prevention, she said, is one of the best ways to manage around an attack by an animal rights group.
The first thing Thompson-Weeman suggests is clear “No Trespassing” signage around the perimeter of a farm or ranch property.
“Make sure you have readily legible, easily seen signage all along the perimeter of your property,” she said. “Make sure it stays up. That can be a sign that there might be an issue if you go out one day and your No Trespassing signs are down. Someone could have taken them down so they can come back and say (the signs) were never there and they didn’t know it was private property.”
Security cameras visible to visitors, motion sensor lighting along gates, and requiring a check in before entering the property can all be deterrents to individuals hoping to gain easy access to a farm or ranch.
Despite these efforts, Thompson-Weeman said it is common for people to come to farms and ranches and misrepresent who they are in an effort to gain access. In one instance, a person gained access to a farm by lying and claiming to be with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was there to inspect the property following some flood damage. Others have claimed to be salespersons or even new employees. Communication, she said, is one of the best ways to avoid these instances.
EYES AND EARS
Enlisting the help of employees and neighbors can be a boon to farms and ranchers as well.
“Let your neighbors know there have been some crazy things happening on farms and ask them to help be your eyes and ears so if they see something strange, they know to tell you right away,” she said.
Communicating with local law enforcement about concerns before an incident can also open the door for communication and make local law enforcement aware of your concerns. In the event that unwanted visitors do make their way onto the property, she said a call to law enforcement is key as a conflict is something to avoid.
“We don’t want to see producers get into a confrontation,” she said. “That’s what they want. They want attention and they want conflict and we need to avoid that. Keeping your cool is very important. Call local law enforcement and let them do their job keeping people from trespassing and breaking the law.”
One of the challenges, she admited, is maintaining a transparent relationship with consumers while keeping the borders of a farm or ranch secure. Keeping in mind a farm or ranch’s audience is key in overcoming this challenge.
“People who are protesting on farms and trying to get people to go vegan are a very slim, very extreme portion of the population,” she said. “They absolutely do not represent your general consumer.”
Just as farmers are a small percentage of the population, so are the extremists in the animal rights realm. Only about 3 percent of the U.S. population are vegetarian or vegan, she said, and an even smaller percentage are extremists.
“It’s important to be vigilant and mindful that these people are out there but please don’t let their influence stop you from communicating about what you do,” she said. “That’s their goal. They want to get between farmers and consumers. They want to tell an inaccurate or distorted story about what we do and that’s why it’s so essential that we are raising our voices and sharing information whether it’s pictures, video, or blogs that talk about what we do on the farm. It’s a balancing act.”
Remembering who agriculture’s real consumers are and communicating with them is more important, she said, than being derailed by extremists. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She lives on a farm near Wiggins, Colo., where she and her family raise cattle and show goats.