Paul Malchow

In December of 2019 I attended GreenSeam’s Rural Forum dinner in Mankato. The featured speaker that evening was Richard “Rick” Berman, President of Berman and Company, a Washington, DC-based public affairs firm specializing in research, communications and creative advertising.

Berman’s message that evening was a wake-up call for agriculture to pay attention to the anti-ag messages permeating print, visual and social media. Most of these efforts are quite subtle, Berman warned, yet have a definite impact on the public’s perception of ag products — especially meat. He said unless agriculture mounted their own campaigns to dispel anti-ag myths, the grocery-buying public will support those myths which will turn into habits — and eventually — truths.

America’s appetite for meat has been an agriculture battleground for generations now, but the financial stakes are getting higher all of the time. This is probably why I’m seeing more press releases dealing with farm and animal security.

Most anyone who has owned animals for profit or pleasure is familiar with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). PETA makes no bones about using controversial methods to create splashy headlines in the name of “animal rights.” One of PETA’s standard guerilla tactics is to release contained animals into the wild where, ironically, they are left to starve or die from exposure.

Ethical treatment indeed. Yet in 2019 PETA took in revenues exceeding $50 million.

A couple of weeks ago I read an email titled, “PETA owns a secret to ending animal farming and other unfortunate animal-human relationships.” The article stated Vast Self Public Charity announced the sharing of a newfound secret with PETA which will help end animal farming and other unfortunate relationships between humans and animals currently protected by the law.

Now there’s an attention-getter.

A little Google digging revealed Vast Self Corp is a public charity whose “mission is world peace and happiness. This is achieved by demonstrating that our ordinary perceptions are mistaken.” Vast Self does not go into detail as to why their perceptions are spot-on.

Anyway, Vast Self’s “newfound secret” is based on “the fact that the senses of most humans cannot perceive that they and animals are the same self. Since humans and animals are the same self, humans cannot “own” animals. Ending animal farming by reversing the view that animals can be property will bring great benefit to humans, animals, and the environment," Vast Self claims.

I’m no Rhodes scholar and this philosophy goes way beyond my “ordinary perceptions.” Vast Self may just be hitching up with PETA to get a piece of the $50 million pie; but to quote Lowell George, “To a boy from the woods this don’t sound so good.”

A couple of days later I read a story by Donnelle Eller of the Des Moines Register titled, “Charges dropped against animal rights activitist who secretly filmed Iowa pigs being killed.”

Eller’s story states, “a northeast Iowa county attorney has dropped trespass charges against an animal rights activist who secretly filmed a company destroying thousands of pigs it was unable to send to packinghouses during last spring's coronavirus shutdowns.”

Grundy County Attorney Erica Allen filed the motion at the request of West Des Moines-based Iowa Select. (Iowa Select is the nation's fourth-largest pork producer).

“Iowa Select … has denied any wrongdoing and said it worked with veterinarians to determine how best to destroy the animals it was unable to slaughter,” Eller wrote. “(Iowa Select) asked that the charges be dropped because it ‘cannot be distracted by individuals who choose to break the law and grandstand.’"

Pursuing the trespassing charge in court would have put Iowa Select employees and owner Jeff Hansen on the stand to defend not only the euthanasia of the pigs, but the company’s general practices as well. At best, a public relations nightmare.

But while big corporations have long been targets of espionage and hidden camera-toting activists, there is a growing concern these activists may be coming to a farm near you. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a surge in farm-to-table public interest and consumers buying their food directly from the grower.

During a recent Dairy Business Association’s annual conference, Hannah Thompson-Weeman voiced concerns over animal rights activists’ access to farms and warned of the need to protect against it.

Thompson-Weeman is the vice president of strategic engagement at Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to “bridge the communication gap between farm and fork.” She says in the age of activism, some resort to extreme measures, going undercover on farms whether as a visitor, customer or employee.

Thompson-Weeman suggests when farmers receive a visit request to search for their profiles on social media. “You can tell a lot about a person by posts and photos,” she said. “Be careful. There are such things as fake profiles. So, search for people with Google or other search engines. Of course, not everything on social media is true, so try an old-fashioned approach: call. Talk to them verbally. Being able to ask questions not only provides a clear picture of what the customer wants, but also requires them to answer quickly. Sometimes that exercise alone can provide you with a sense of the person’s motives.”

Thompson-Weeman also suggests to meet off the farm. Consider delivering farm products to a neutral location such as a local gas station or grocery store parking lot. This allows safety for both farmer and consumer to complete the transaction.

If you must have customers, employees or visitors on the farm, use a check-in procedure complete with visitor identification badges. Consider visitor escorts while customers are on the farm. Set up times for customers, allowing for one visitor at a time. Make sure areas like office doors, file cabinets and animal product storage are locked down.

If your farm is hiring new employees, Thompson-Weeman urges you to screen job applicants and check references. “Is your candidate over-educated or inappropriately educated for the job they are applying for? Does their license and other information contrast with the background they’ve shared with you or their past work history? If something doesn’t feel right, explore it further,” Thompson-Weeman said. “If hired for seasonal or full-time work, monitor new employees, making sure they leave the farm after a shift and stay away from restricted areas.”

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association has scheduled a webinar, “Consumer Perceptions and Animal Welfare Considerations.” It takes place on March 2 at 1 p.m.

“Animal welfare is an ever-increasing concern for our consumers,” DCHA says in a release announcing the webinar. “In a world where we have endless dietary options and choices, we must build consumer trust around our farming practices. Animal welfare and calf care specifically, are highly sensitive topics for consumers. We will discuss consumer insights around production animal agriculture and dive into specific future considerations for management, diet, health treatments, housing and more.”

If interested in registering for the webinar, visit https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_n0WSE72vTTqCPpC9gCZTbg.

Can you be a farmer and an animal activist? The farmers I’ve ever known knew the importance of animals to their livelihood and work long days to ensure their animals’ well-being. A healthy animal is a productive animal and an asset to the farm. True, there are instances where animals are mistreated, but it’s wrong to condemn an entire profession for the practices of a few.

It is also true that few farm animals die of old age. It’s a valuable lesson every farm kid learns early on.  If you want to eat meat, cheese and eggs, and if you want to drink milk, this is where it comes from. It involves imposing our will over the “rights” of animals. Does this make us cruel monsters? If so, I guess heaven is full of vegans.

Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.

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