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Payn-Knoper: It’s time to end ‘food fights’

Written by Saige Albert

Loveland, Colo. – “The future is looking pretty dismal,” said Michele Payn-Knoper, author of No More Food Fights, on Nov. 17 at the Range Beef Cow Symposium. “To me, the future of agriculture and the future of farming and ranching has everything to do with leadership.”

Payn-Knoper added that consumers are leading conversations related to food, and environmentalists, government and media also influence the conversation.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, I never expected to see this,” she said. “The reality is, we have to face misinformation and activist pressure.”

Answering consumers

Payn-Knoper further noted that every time the agriculture industry responds to concerns and misinformation, they respond with science and data.

“We will fail at this conversation every time we come back with science and data,” she commented.

Fear and ignorance are prevalent among consumers, and those people advertising against agriculture utilize emotion to their benefit.

“The future is about connecting with consumers and emotions,” she said.

Education

After showing a video clip where consumers asked questions that seem ridiculous to many agriculture producers, Payn-Knoper emphasized that, to the consumer, they are reasonable inquiries.

“If I walk onto your ranch and say, ‘I’d like to educate you on how you are taking care of your cattle wrong,’ you’d throw me off your farm or ranch,” she said. “Yet, in agriculture, we all think we can stand in front of the consumers – people who are making choices – and tell them they are stupid.”

The attitude of ranchers comes off as arrogant, defensive and rude.

“Arrogance will never win in today’s society,” Payn-Knoper said. “I suggest that we approach this as a conversation.”

Public relations

Payn-Knoper continued that farmers and ranchers tend to be much happier working on their land with livestock than in the public relations arena, but she said, “We don’t get that privilege anymore, especially when we consider what is happening and look at social media conversations.”

For example, the Humane Society of the United States has seen a 550-fold increase in their Twitter following since January 2009.

“There is only one reason that I’ve been involved in social media, and that has been to provide insight and information and to inspire conversations around farmers and food,” she said. “When we look at what PETA has done on Facebook, for example, I strongly suggest that we consider the opportunity to share some message about why we do what we do.”

Impact of emotion

In addition to sharing the agricultural message on social media, Payn-Knoper repeated that much of the conversation involving agriculture and industry practices is built around emotion.

“Peoples’ reference point for livestock is their cats and dogs,” she explained. “We wouldn’t let our cattle sleep on the sofa, but that is their reference.”

Because most of the American public sees livestock as similar to household pets, Payn-Knoper said that if we post photos on social media showing cattle in a squeeze chute – something consumers wouldn’t do with their cat or dog – it is necessary to explain that chutes are used for the safety of both the animal and the human.

“If we aren’t sharing pictures and talking to people about what we do, how are they supposed to know?” she asked.

Technology

When it comes to issues like biotechnology, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and organics, Payn-Knoper commented that additional information is necessary.

“Biotechnology is one of the most contentious issues out there, and antibiotics has risen to the forefront,” she explained. “Are we prepared to talk about why we give animals antibiotics?”

In looking at organic agriculture, Payn-Knoper also looked at maintaining a united front in the industry.

“How many of us who raise conventional cattle have thrown organic ranchers and producers under the bus?” she asked. “The reality is, we don’t have enough time to fight amongst ourselves. United we stand, divided we fall.”

She added that other issues, like use of hormones, often fall on unknowledgeable audiences, commenting, “Science and literacy is a huge issue. We can’t assume that people understand that hormones are a natural part of cattle and crops.”

Making an impact

With all the issues facing the agriculture industry, Payn-Knoper emphasized, “People will forget the perfect sound bite. They will forget how we farm and ranch, but they will never forget the way we make them feel.”

“We may think it is ignorant to have a conversation in the coffee shop about why and how we take care of cattle, but if one person passes on information about rancher Joe that he knows, it is good for us,” she added. “If we can create a good feeling and help the public think about farmers and ranchers as real people who are just like them, we win every time.”

Payn-Knoper said that, to start making an effort, it is important to start with a plan and to identify the target audience.

“We also have to be able to target the hot-button issues, spend fifteen minutes every day working on the issues at a local level and commit to our plan,” she commented. “Everyone is going to do this differently.”
She added that, while many farmers and ranchers would rather beat their head against a wall than talk to the media, it is important for producers to be accessible.

“The media can’t find sources to talk about food and agriculture,” Payn-Knoper said, “but all they have to do is walk down the street and talk to the Humane Society of the United States.”

She noted that targeting specific media outlets could make an impact.

“We can do this in a lot of different places and in a lot of different ways,” Payn-Knoper commented. “Join me in this conversation, because our voice has to be heard so we can protect the future.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..