*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
WE spend a lot of time talking about the animal rights movement, anti-agriculture activists and various challenges facing food animal production in modern western society.
In so doing, we typically frame the discussion in an "us versus them" manner. We do so with good reason, of course, because it is both easy and typically accurate.
When discussing The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mercy for Animals or a dozen other bad actors in the crusade against modern meat consumption and production, it is difficult to consider the opposition as anything but the enemy. One of my friends once described HSUS as "radical anti-meat terrorists."
How does the conversation change when the "opposition" is actually a close friend, co-worker or colleague?
I am convinced that the previous question is one of the biggest reasons folks in and around Ohio bristled at the "compromise" between agricultural groups and HSUS last year. Farmers and supporters of Ohio's Issue 2 initiative in 2009 felt "betrayed" by the key agriculture leaders who brokered the deal to avoid a costly HSUS-led ballot measure.
Many of us likely know someone in our inner circle who might not support our commitment to consumption of animal-based proteins to the same degree. In my own sphere of influence, one of my closest friends offers many a blood pressure-escalating comment, question or anecdote challenging my closely held beliefs and assumptions. This particular friend loves animals, and in that, we have something in common. The difference, of course, is best illustrated by a recent anecdote involving culling.
One of my cows, a female in the middle of her productive life expectancy, aborted late in her last gestation. A wise producer once told me an open cow costs money, and I strongly considered sending her to town. When the situation came up in conversation with my friend, she was shocked that I would consider selling this cow because of her failure to calve.
Ultimately, after consulting with the rest of my management team (my dad and little brother, my herdsmen), we decided her pedigree and past production warranted another effort before making the decision to cull.
The experience of having my management decisions questioned by a trusted non-farm friend illustrated for me a large challenge for the less than 2% of the population involved in production agriculture: People who disagree with, or lack an understanding of, basic farm practices and procedures are not necessarily the enemy.
Last week, I wrote about escaping the "echo chamber" and letting people outside our own philosophy breech our defenses. Upon further reflection and personal experience, I encourage you to take it one more step and think about how what we do on the farm looks, sounds and feels to our close friends and cohorts off the farm. Ignore the perspective of the enemy for a moment, and consider the perspective of those closest to you who might be the most ignorant.
One of my first experiences "educating" my friends came from hiring a graphic designer to build my first web site as a farm broadcaster. The designer, who had built dozens of exceptional web sites, had zero experience with agriculture and food production.
At one of our first meetings, he noticed on my desk a sire catalog from a prominent artificial insemination (AI) company and inquired what I was reading. As I explained the concept of AI and the "bull book," my friend offered some hilarious observations. Among my favorites was the notion of the book being the "Victoria's Secret catalog for cows" and of Select Sires being a "sperm bank for bovines."
In many cases, the adage "if you're not with me, you're against me" holds true. In the case of relating to and communicating with consumers about agricultural issues, however, we cannot afford to be quite so cavalier or condescending.