The old adage states “seeing is believing.” For today’s skeptical, media-overwhelmed consumer, this is certainly true. There was a time when a man’s word was his bond; honesty was the best policy; and, if someone told you something was true, it most likely was. Those days are gone. The reality is most people today (especially the younger generations) are not likely to believe any claim made about a product, an industry, or individual they do not know or have personal experience with. This is why the newest trend in reaching consumers with the truth about agriculture is transparency.
The basic concept here is: if you let people see what we are doing and explain why we do it, they will understand. The Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks and the Glass Barn at the Indiana State Fair are just two of the latest example of efforts to be transparent. At the Pig Adventure, the public can view a real working swine operation in action. At the Fair Oaks side of the complex, they can view a dairy farm at work. In both cases, their experience is interpreted so they actually know what they are seeing and why it is being done.
In the Glass Barn, videogames and interactive technology are used to explain the life cycle of grain and soybean production. Video games are used to present the information in an accurate yet entertaining manner. In addition, a Skype connection lets visitors see and talk with a farmer on his farm. During the just concluded State Fair, tens of thousands of people took part in the Glass Barn activities.
In both cases, painstaking efforts have been made to avoid making these slick propaganda events. The information and images presented are factual and accurate. While the experience provides context and interpretation, visitors are free to form their own opinions based on what they have seen. This is the dangerous side of transparency. Even after we show people what we do and explain why we do it, they still may disagree. That is where the next step comes in: dialogue. The American Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has been promoting dialogue between farmers and consumers which will hopefully lead to compromise.
The movement represents a true paradigm shift for American agriculture. It has not been easy for the traditionally independent, self-reliant farmer to open up his operation and his methods to the scrutiny of outsiders. Yet, this is the path we must take if we are to continue to enjoy the support of our customers and consumers. Activists have used the lack of knowledge about food production by the public to further their causes and fill their coffers. Transparency and dialogue are the two biggest threats these groups face.
We saw how the lack of transparency was used by activist groups in the recent debate of laws to prevent unauthorized videotaping on farms. While the so called “ag gag” bills were not about hiding anything but were about protecting farmers from exploitation, opponents branded them as efforts to hide animal abuse. So does this mean consumers should be able to walk onto any farm at any time? No, and most consumers don’t want to. They simply want to be assured that what we are doing is good. By providing selected examples of transparency, we can help consumers understand what we do and why and give them the confidence that we in agriculture know what we are doing. And, when we disagree, we provide opportunity for dialogue in which consumers and farmers can discuss their differences.
Not all transparency efforts need to be big scale, big budget projects. Farm tours, ag in the classroom, even community gardens can be a way agriculture can connect with consumers and deliver the message of how their food is produced. It is also a very effective way to counter the charges and accusations of activists and misguided retail chains. With transparency we can gain trust and credibility, the two most powerful weapons in today’s society.
by Gary Truitt