If you had a multi-million dollar annual budget, the membership of some of the largest and most powerful agricultural groups in the world, and you wanted farmers and consumers to communicate, how might you go about it?
The recent “Food Dialogues” – organized and funded by the year old U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance – took on this challenge, launching “a new effort to bring together different viewpoints on farming and ranching and the future of food.” To meet this goal, the group hosted four panel discussions, and is utilizing popular social media tools like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. But thus far, despite the group’s $11 million annual budget, the effort seems to have made little actual headway.
The Alliance, in an email exchange with Food+Tech Connect, called their social media strategy “straightforward.” “USFRA continues to strive for a two-way dialogue through various channels including Facebook and Twitter by answering questions and comments from consumers and facilitating conversation with farmers and ranchers.” Chris Galen of the National Milk Producers Federation and a founder of USFRA wrote to Food+Tech Connect:
“Today’s consumers are online – engaging in social media activities from Twitter to Facebook to individual blogs. This medium wasn’t heavily utilized five years ago and now we have a great tool to truly connect farmers and ranchers one-on-one with consumers who want to know more about their food. The Food Dialogues Town Hall event engaged 4,000 people online in just one day – and continues to engage even more through all the information archived on the Food Dialogues website. Never before could farmers and ranchers so seamlessly engage with the American consumer than via social media.
But the data actually suggests a different reality. Despite the group’s claim of 4000 “people online,” the group has only 798 followers on Twitter (as opposed to Monsanto’s 11,000+, or the similarly mandated AgChat with more than 16,000). And its YouTube views are downright embarrassing, with a whopping 37 tuning in to watch the “Full video recap of the successful Food Dialogues Town Hall”
Perhaps most striking is the group’s Facebook site. Aside from the dramatic photo of moderator Claire Shipman and Chef John Besh, the wall is full of articles like Monsanto is secretly poisoning the population with Roundup, and has less than a handful of farmer responses on it.
One Facebook question put forth by reader Trish Wright asked why no farmers appeared to be involved in responding to questions on the site. USFRA responded:
Trish, USFRA conducted the Food Dialogues in late September to begin the dialogue with consumers about how food is grown and raised. Farmers and ranchers were not the audience to which USFRA was wanting to reach. We had initially planned to conduct the Food Dialogues earlier, but we delayed them a month to allow Congress to complete their important business regarding the debt limit. USFRA wished to avoid that major distraction.
(Wright responded by asking if the harvest in September wasn’t more of a distraction for farmers than the Congress debating debt.)
Aside from not answering Wright’s question as to why no farmers appeared involved on the site, the interaction is interesting because of the Alliance’s insistence that “USFRA is not a policy-making organization and therefore does not lobby.”
Yet in a former iteration of the group’s mission statement found on their website just last week, and in their stated goals as reported in Agri-Pulse last February, the group outlined its purpose less as a consumer “dialogue” and more as a lobbying campaign.
“The goal: annual commitments of $20 to $30 million, considered the minimum amount needed to launch a credible, sustained national campaign capable of shifting public perceptions, legislative priorities in Congress, and policy implementation at USDA, EPA and other government agencies.
Now, in order to come to an agreement between its various member farming groups and commercial interests, USFRA’s says it will not have an “official opinion” on controversial topics like GMO seed.
But clearly the Alliance is not shying away from its support of large-scale agribusiness over smaller scale farming. In perhaps its best use of social media so far, the group has produced a series of documentaries it released on YouTube at the end of September. Professionally shot and focused on some of the more decisive issues in agriculture like feedlots and confined hog operations, the series has received a bit more attention from viewers, ranging from 120 views for the Soy Documentary, to almost 1650 for the Beef.
The “Beef Documentary” bills itself as “an emotional portrayal of farmers discussing the science behind a cattle feedlot and the care involved in raising the cows.” Set on a feedlot in the golden glow of sunset, owner Rick Stock talks about topics such as feed (without ever mentioning the word “corn”), manure and environmental practices. Soft music plays throughout, and Stock chokes up at the end of the video while telling a story about giving out beef at the Food Bank for Thanksgiving.
The video, and the others like in the series, emphasize the “science” behind the operation and discuss repeatedly the amount of data that is collected and used to raise animals in such confined circumstances. “The amount of information we gather is really unbelievable,” says Stock in the video. “Every day’s feed, every treatment they have, every review they have….we know exactly what has been treated, how much and when.”
Yet this is exactly the kind of information the public currently does not have access to and could make all the difference for the USFRA. Whether trying to influence congressional delegates or the general public, the Alliance might dispel more “myths” by releasing actual data of antibiotic use, the impact of feedlots on the environment and what exactly cattle are fed, than by tweeting. Stock and the USFRA would be more convincing if they stopped recording “emotional” videos and conducting Facebook “dialogues,” and instead became truly transparent.