A Public Relations Challenge for AgricultureBy Stewart Truelsen
If there is one thing farmers have been able to count on, it is the goodwill of the American public. "It's primarily a devotion to the family farm," says Prof. Luther Tweeten of The Ohio State University." Tweeten cites a survey in which 80% of the people, including residents of very large cities, agreed that the family farm is an essential part of our heritage and must be preserved.
But Tweeten, who has distinguished himself in analyzing the forces that are shaping agriculture today, is quick to add that the image of the family farm is starting to catch up with reality. "The public is increasingly recognizing that this is not your Dad or Grandma's family farm. This romantic, nostalgic image is changing even in the mind of the public."
The reality is that commercial farms, the farms that account for most of the output, are family businesses and not just a way of life. Tweeten cites the new farm bill as an example of what this change means. Congress had no trouble in passing a bill that phases out farm program payments. In the past, there would have been strong opposition to such drastic cuts.
The 1996 farm bill does use the carrot approach rather than the stick when it comes to environmental measures. But Tweeten believes this will also change, with agriculture treated more like non-farm industries.
"Standards will be set," says Tweeten, "and farmers will be expected to come up to those standards, and that includes livestock feeding operations. Producers will bear more of the costs of making those changes."
Agriculture is different than non-farm industries. It is harder to pass cost increases on to consumers, and agriculture is an extremely risky business. Tweeten believes that commercial farms of adequate size that are reasonably well-managed can make the adjustments.
One thing farmers, large and small, hope to retain is the goodwill of the American people. A good relationship between farm and city people is absolutely essential if agriculture is to prosper and feed the world, as our farmers have been called upon to do.
This will be a public relations challenge for agriculture. It must avoid losing public support or worse, having the public turn against farmers just because farming uses high-technology or looks corporate or industrial.
Stewart Truelsen is director of broadcast services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.