Big agribusiness has launched a media campaign designed to revive its tarnished image by promoting the American farmer.
Big agribusiness has launched a media campaign designed to revive its tarnished image by promoting the American farmer. Bryan Mitchell/AP
Farmers and the groups that represent them are wincing from a steady stream of bad publicity. So big agriculture companies — and some smaller operators — are trying to get together in defense to present a united farm front.
It used to be that most Americans had some connection to the farm. Now, only 1 in 1,000 of us grows 85 percent of the food. For decades, the best farmers could do was to hang on and adapt as their political and economic clout withered. Federal subsidies, primarily from the farm bill passed by Congress every five years, kept them afloat.
These days, farmers are making very good money on everything from corn to cows. But as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned farm broadcasters meeting in Kansas City, Mo., Congress could change all the rules next year when it takes up the farm bill.
"You're going to have folks from cities making decisions about the farm bill," Vilsack said. "You'd better talk to them."
But city folks are hearing a lot about agriculture these days, and not a lot of it is good.
Many farmers worry that most people get all their information about agriculture from foodie advocacy — such as from movies like Food Inc., a documentary depicting inhumane treatment of animals and general disregard for human health in agribusiness. Best-selling books from authors Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have also made this kind of food reporting "highly visible," says Margo Baldwin, president of Chelsea Green Publishing.
Big ag is fighting back with paid advertising. A spot funded by the seed and chemical giant Monsanto says:
"Few other industries have shown such efficiency and respect for the environment. So when you ask, 'Who's caring for the land?' look to the people who live on it and make a living from it — America's farmers."
Mark Halton is in charge of global corporate marketing at Monsanto.
"We're telling the story of the American farmer, and we're using iconic images. These aren't actors. These are farmers," Halton says.
No Image Problem Here
It's not just Monsanto. Several other companies are mounting remarkably similar campaigns. Foundations have been established to help farm families perk up their advocacy on Facebook and Twitter.
And two dozen of the biggest ag trade groups have joined the fray, putting aside bitter disputes to form an unprecedented coalition. It's called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
"We want the general public to feel totally safe in their decision-making process, and totally comfortable about the food they buy," says Hugh Whaley, who runs the group. Whaley says they'll do it by showcasing real farmers and ranchers. Cattleman Fred Stokes finds that a little odd.
"Hey, the farmer and rancher don't have an image problem," Stokes says.
Stokes says it's big agribusiness that has the image problem. Seeing trade groups aligned with it, united ostensibly to help family farmers, "is a little like seeing a gathering of mafia dons, smoking their long green cigars, putting out the cover story that they are gathering to build a convent," he says.
As Stokes sees it, the good image farmers enjoy is being exploited by soulless ag conglomerates. But Mike Matson with the Kansas Farm Bureau says this rancor has to stop.
"We have seen that this trend line toward sustaining the political will to do the same thing is not as strong as it's always been, and at some point, we'll reach that tipping point, which is why it's so important for farmers and ranchers to get involved," Matson says.
And they are getting involved as never before. Many believe it's the best hope they have to keep the agricultural system they've learned to live with from becoming even more hostile to the family farm.