Alumbaugh: Farmers are marketers, too

When you hear the term "pork industry," what thoughts come to mind? Do you think about the national organizations that represent the industry? Do you think about the companies to which you sell your pigs? Do you see yourself as being an integral component of the industry?

Life used to be simpler: You raised the pigs, sold them to a packer and consumers happily bought the end product.

Now, largely because activist groups, talk-show hosts and even food companies with an agenda have put fear in the collective mind of consumers, the public wants to know more about how your animals are raised, what they eat and how you manage them.

Industry organizations are diligent in helping disseminate a balanced understanding of agriculture and pork production to consumers.

But it's not enough.

Laurie Isley, a farmer from Blissfield, Mich., who was featured in the September 2015 issue of PORK Network, says, "I think the majority of people are just looking for direction - if they are given sound information in a way that's not extreme, hopefully they will begin to question some of what they hear and see on the internet."

Isley was a high school science and vo-ag teacher for 30 years, so when she talks to people who don't understand agriculture, she quickly puts her communication skills to work.

She says, "Many of us are not comfortable engaging these individuals in dialogue. We avoid them at gatherings and we skip over their posts on social media sites. We'd like to think they will just 'go away' or that someone else will tell them the facts. Unfortunately, that is increasingly unlikely."

Easier Said than Done
Outreach doesn't come naturally for most people, and that's especially true for farmers. In fact, you probably chose pork production as a profession because you're independent and don't necessarily like dealing with the public (my husband easily falls in that category).

However, if you think about what you need to do to ensure your operation's success in the future, it becomes increasingly apparent that how you market yourself and your business is pivotally important.

Fortunately, you're not on your own. The National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council have plenty of resources for you to use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government entities can help, too.

PORK Network reported this week on the newly launched U.S. Farming and Ranching Foundation. One of the primary goals of the philanthropic non-profit organization is to develop a curriculum guide that will be made available to high school students nationwide.

In the announcement release, Chairman Jim Blome who is also President & CEO of Bayer CropScience LP, said, "This new foundation will further ag education and consumer understanding about food, by developing educational-based tools and interactive consumer programs, that serve as a unified effort to reach Americans in ways in which they want to learn about modern agriculture."

On Your Shoulders
Educational tools and training materials are important, but truthfully, it starts with your own story, and how you share what you do with others.

Every time you talk with your non-farming friends, health-care providers, children's teachers, or anyone else, start a conversation. Ask them questions about what they do, and then, given the opportunity, share with them what you do. Give an anecdote or experience of something that happened on the farm. Help them "walk in your shoes," but put yourself in their shoes, too. They're trying to get an honest view of agriculture and animal production while being inundated with a lot of information that's not factual. As our contributor Katie Olthoff points out, we need to "Listen to consumers, really think about their concerns, and show them that we care."

Isley agrees. She says, "We need to support our industry by sharing our stories and connecting with consumers on a personal, meaningful level."

Because after all, it's your pork industry.