PUBLIC SCRUTINY OF MANURE MANAGEMENT PRACTICES IS FORCING PRODUCERS TO BECOME PROACTIVE IN SPREADING POSITIVE MESSAGES ABOUT WHAT THEY DO
by Susan Falk
You might say the livestock industry is under attack. Public concerns about the environment have escalated in recent years, and farming practices are being endlessly scrutinized. In the area of manure management, many feel that livestock operations pose a threat to the environment, particularly that they will contaminate both ground and surface water. Perceptions such as these threaten to place unnecessary restrictions on livestock production, something the industry is currently forced to confront.
Livestock producers and owners adhere to new and existing regulations to ensure the safe handling of manure, but Roper says the public is simply not aware of this. "For years we've asked farmers to use best management practices. We implemented the OFAER (On-Farm Assistance Environmental Review) program that assures compliance to rules and regulations surrounding farming practices through the use of a third-party auditor." What's more, producers voluntarily requested such a program in order to quantify what they do on their farms with regards to environmental issues.
In addition to the lack of public awareness of safe farming practices, Roper believes many of the public concerns surrounding manure management stem from the significant change in the landscape of animal agriculture. "Animal agriculture looks very different than it did 30 or 40 years ago. It is more concentrated, and I think this has caused some alarm for people." But a concentration in numbers, he says, doesn't mean that the sum is greater, and it certainly doesn't mean current manure management practices are not safe and responsible.
"Communication and education are the tools we need to use now to combat the misrepresentation of our industry," says Roper. "We need to take public concerns seriously and shed light on misrepresentation of animal agriculture by getting positive messages out there and teaching the public about our responsible practices." And Roper believes that participants in all areas of agriculture need to join in this effort, as so many agriculture sectors depend on the success of the livestock industry.
Spreading the word on the livestock industry's commitment to public safety and environmental stewardship is unquestionably essential, and the Ontario Pork Board has certainly stepped up to the plate in this area. The group is currently in the second year of a three-year campaign to ensure its side of the story is heard.
"We realized it was essential for producers to start talking about their industry, telling truthfully and forthrightly what's going on, what they do," Robbins explains. Ontario Pork felt the best approach would be one that was comprehensive, integrated and advocacy-based. "Essentially, the campaign involves pork producers standing up and saying, 'This is a pork producer, this is what a farmer looks like.'"
In order to build a positive relationship between pork producers and the general public, Ontario Pork put out the "Faces of Farming" calendar that featured pork producers from across Ontario. "We wanted to put a face to farming by introducing farmers to the public - their customers." Robbins says the calendar was a hit, and a second edition was created for 2003.
"We also want to encourage farmers to address misinformation," Robbins says. Ontario Pork wants to ensure there are just as many positive stories out there as there are negative, and the group has been using print advertising as well as radio advertisements to do this. "We want to address misconceptions about manure management. We want people to realize, for example, that a farmer who uses the water under his farm, whose family and animals use that water, would not pollute that water."
Robbins is also pointing out the other roles pork producers play. "We want to demonstrate to the public that our producers are also volunteer firefighters, soccer coaches and active in the church." The campaign encourages farmers to be visibly committed to their communities, helping to bring accurate depictions of who they are to light. "Our producers have always been involved in their communities, but now we know we need to publicize their involvements."
Another way to put forth positive messages is to encourage farmers to "open their doors" to their neighbors, says Robbins. In addition to sending producers the details of the campaign and the reasons for it, Ontario Pork has provided them with kits on how to host an open house for their neighbors. Robbins notes that producers have embraced this information.
According to Robbins, the campaign has been a successful one. Its content has garnered several Canadian Agri-Marketing Association awards, as well as positive in-field recognition. "And media analyses show that we're in the papers, countering the negative stories. We're also seeing more positives in terms of where the media goes to get their stories. Many reporters have been calling in to our office to make sure they have their facts straight."
Manitoba Pork Council is another group that has taken a proactive approach to addressing concerns. Started in 1998, the "Peer Advisors" program provides an opportunity for constructive dialogue between complainants and producers. "A complainant can provide information to us about their concerns," explains Peter Mah, director of community relations and sustainable development for Manitoba Pork. "We would then send out a peer advisor who is a well-seasoned and experienced pork producer to go and talk to the alleged offending producer about the issues surrounding the complaint." The council will make recommendations that might change the manure management strategies or farming practices in order to create the best situation for both the complainant and producer.
Market research in 2002 shows that public perception of Canada's pork industry has dramatically improved since 1998, demonstrating the positive impact of the extensive work industry and governments have done to promote hog production.
It is obvious public concerns must be addressed early in the game. "As an industry, we have to work hard to explain what we do to the general public. We know that less than 2 percent of the population is directly involved in agriculture, so it's up to us to tell our side of the story," says Robbins.
Roper feels the same way. "Public concerns must be addressed, and communicating with and educating the consumer are essential in doing this. We need to demonstrate that what we're doing on the farm is an approved practice, backed up by sound science." AM
Susan Falk is staff writer at Issues Ink, a communications company based in Winnipeg, Canada, which publishes several agriculture magazines, including Germination and Manure Matters.