THE news ticker on major news networks Aug. 10 reported that activists had successfully used red paint in an attack at the Iowa State Fair.
The running script was flawed, however. People did throw red paint on the iconic butter sculpture of a cow, but they were not activists.
An informal conversation I had with some livestock industry colleagues included a discussion of the term "activist." We agreed that it has become an industry standard to describe every person or group that opposes livestock production as an activist. We agreed that, to some degree, this standard is counterproductive to industry efforts to increase transparency and educate consumers.
In the U.S. and many other countries, being an activist is not a bad thing. Citizen activism has played an important role throughout the history of this country. Many times, the actions of citizen activists have been described as heroic. Dedicated activists have a passion to do the right thing when representing their cause or the people they support.
If the livestock industry truly wants to be more transparent, it is time to call a pitchfork a pitchfork and abandon the practice of blanket identification. If we want the public to have all of the details, then we need to identify those who are using unlawful tactics, inflamed rhetoric or skewed data — honestly and in detail.
The day following the butter cow attack, a follow-up ticker did not report the identity of the extremist group that claimed responsibility for the attack or that they confessed to breaking the law in order to gain access to the butter sculpture. It is unfortunate that most Americans heard only the first report that an activist had been successful.
Later in the week, there was no ticker reporting that people were purchasing and wearing Butter Cow Security shirts as a way to reinforce their support for agriculture in the state. Those real activists did not need to vandalize or commit any crime to prove their point.
An activist is willing to vigorously work and communicate on issues of importance to them or the groups they support. Some may choose to communicate vocally in the media, at organized protests and on street corners. Others are engaged behind the scenes writing letters, making telephone calls and raising funds to support their cause.
The reputation of legitimate activist groups can be destroyed when radical individuals infiltrate the membership. They use their own inflammatory rhetoric and seek out activist groups that have a tradition of success. These extremists are smart; they know how to manipulate the emotions and actions of others to promote their own personal agenda.
The term "advocate" has become the standard in the industry to describe those individuals who positively engage on behalf of agriculture on many different levels.
Armed with facts and data, they volunteer their time to promote the industry to their local communities, the media and consumers. Behind the scenes, advocates are writing letters, making calls, blogging and helping raise funds, while others reach out to government officials and decision-makers.
A dedicated advocate for agriculture has a passion to do the right thing when representing the industry and producers. In short, they are activists with a different title.
Recently, a Capitol Hill staffer pointed out to me that using the title "advocate" for agriculture is a little confusing to those who are unfamiliar with agriculture's past challenges.
He pointed out that he meets with many advocates each day; many are paid to represent special-interest groups and membership organizations.
These advocates are not registered lobbyists but are paid to coordinate grassroots campaigns, to be the local representative for nonprofits and low-funded organizations. Paid advocates also may be hired in some civil circumstances when individuals cannot hire representation.
Extremists, rebels, dissidents, radicals and thugs are terms that more accurately describe those individuals who trespass, destroy property, use creative rhetoric and break the law.
It may be fair to call those who simply challenge what we do "activists."
It may also be time that we start identifying ourselves by our professional titles: farmer, rancher, livestock producer, dairyman, cattleman, pork producer, row crop specialist, agricultural media specialist, grassroots advocate and maybe even activist.
This discussion reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad. He was a little irritated that local scholarships were awarded only to students planning to attend college. He felt that that decision was stereotyping students who make the choice to stay with their family farm operation as "just farmers."
He made it clear that we are not "just" farmers; we are professional businesspeople with advanced skill sets much broader than many other professions.
It is a point to remember when deciding which term best describes your own contributions to food and agricultural production.
Maybe the final news ticker after the Iowa incident should have reported that farmers, ranchers and many other agricultural activists were wearing Butter Cow Security shirts on the fairgrounds to advocate on behalf of production agriculture.
There were no attempts to trespass or destroy property reported in conjunction with their actions. Funds from the sale of the shirts go to the promotion of agriculture and improvement of the fairgrounds.
*Joy Philippi is a fourth-generation Nebraska farmer and pork producer and partners with her parents in Philippi Farms. She has been active in agricultural advocacy for many years and is a former president of the National Pork Producers Council and Nebraska Pork Producers Assn. and a past board member of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.