A united front

Updated: 03/07/2011 @ 9:23am

Until a few years ago, you probably didn't know you were a factory farmer, busy killing Gulf shrimp with fertilizer washed down the Mississippi. If you sell your corn to an ethanol plant, you're also responsible for clearing the Amazon rain forest for crops.

Of course, you're none of the above. But an increasing number of Americans seem to view farmers that way.

Modern agriculture feels besieged by attacks — a book by Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma), a 2009 Time magazine cover story (“The Real Cost of Cheap Food”), successful ballot initiatives by animal rightists in California, moves in Congress to ban feed antibiotics, and EPA rules against farm dust.

Fighting Back With Charm And Facts

Farm groups across the country have started to tell their side of the story. Pam Johnson, who raises corn and soybeans with her husband, Maurice, and son, Ben, in northern Iowa, was glad to welcome a camera crew to her farm during harvest one year for a video clip that appears on the Farmers Feed Us website (www.farmersfeedus.org). It's an effort backed by Iowa's Farm Bureau Federation, Corn Growers Association, Pork Producers Association, and the Midwest Dairy Association.

After Johnson explains the difference between sweet corn and field corn, the clip shows combining and Johnson driving a tractor pulling a grain cart to a semi. The website story of her family's fifth- and six-generation farm is followed by a list of corn facts, including an estimate that biofuels cut gasoline costs by 15%.

“The whole feeling all over is that we farmers, for a long time, haven't told our own personal story,” says Johnson, who also serves on the board of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). She's convinced that consumers want to know more about where their food comes from.

Last summer, the NCGA launched its own campaign, targeting the public and congressional staffers in Washington, D.C. The idea was to get across 10 basic facts about farming, featuring families who grow corn, says Mark Lambert, a communications manager heading the effort known as the Corn Farmers Coalition.

Not only did the coalition buy ad time on local radio stations, but also it blanketed posters over two subway stops for the Metro in the Capitol Hill area — Capitol Hill South and Union Station.

“It was a gallery of family farmers. You could just watch people going along looking at this,” Lambert says. One poster was on the floor near the escalators. “You couldn't avoid this campaign,” he adds.

The messages were simple. One (shown on this page) was from Kurt Hora's family in Iowa, pointing out that 90% of U.S. corn comes from family farms.

“The fact that there are still family farmers, that was a huge message. People didn't know that,” Lambert says.

Polling after the campaign showed some success, with 73% saying the ads made them feel positive about corn farmers, and nearly half strongly agreeing that corn farmers make a positive contribution to the economy, Lambert says.

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