Take care of your land and animals, and they will take care of you. Farmers and ranchers live by these words, and we take our role as caretakers seriously. That’s why it pains the whole community to hear of any kind of mistreatment within the farm gate. Yet, as a quick scan of the latest headlines reminds us every day, we live in a world where bad things can happen. We must be on our guard to protect all those under our care, and if the unthinkable happens, we must act quickly to make it right.
The abuse at Fair Oaks Farms was heartbreaking—both to farmers inside and outside the company. But Fair Oaks’ response is a prime example of just how to respond when a crisis comes knocking at your door. We would all do well to sit up and take notice, whether as a farmer or rancher working to improve animal care and safeguards or as a consumer trying to make the right choices at the grocery store.
As a farmer, I cannot understand how any undercover “activist” could stand by and watch abuse without immediately stepping in and reporting it. In fact, it’s their duty—just as it is any farmer’s or farm employee’s duty—to report abuse or mistreatment immediately, so it can be stopped right away. That kind of behavior makes our blood boil, and we don’t tolerate it. Instead, the activists sat on their secret footage, no doubt hoping to make a bigger news splash later. Meanwhile, Fair Oaks had fired three of the abusive employees as soon as coworkers reported them—and long before any videos came out. Fair Oaks’ response to this behavior then and now is solid proof of how seriously farmers take mistreatment of our animals. But farmers have to know about the abuse in order to stop it. We are vigilant, but we can’t be everywhere at once. If these activist groups were interested in animal wellbeing, they would find ways to work directly with farmers, rather than hiding in the shadows, hoping to create a YouTube hit.
Fair Oaks Farms’ quick and voluntary steps to address the wrongdoing, work with local law enforcement, and make plans to prevent future abuse should make us all ag proud. I do not know a farmer or rancher who would stand for the abuse or mistreatment of his or her animals. That kind of behavior is inexcusable and damages the reputation of the whole farming community. But Fair Oaks Farms did exactly what I’d hope we all would do. They faced the problem head on and vowed to do better. Not only did they immediately fire the employees involved, but they also renewed their pledge to animal welfare and safety through a clear plan of action to increase farm surveillance and transparency.
As farmers, we are always looking for ways to improve—whether that’s by finding more efficient ways to grow crops or better practices for looking out for the animals in our care. I hope instances like this won’t lead us to point fingers but to take a closer look at each of our own businesses. Are we doing everything we can to educate our employees on proper animal care? Do we have clear practices in place to hold each other accountable? I am so grateful that 9 times out of 10, these practices are in place simply as a precaution. But as the old saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Let’s all resolve to take every ounce of prevention we can to ensure the safety of our farms, families and animals and to guard the trust of consumers and our communities.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.