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More than a year after an undercover video campaign revealed animal welfare issues at Fair Oaks Farms, experts say there are important lessons to be learned.

In the late 1990s, three dairy producers sat in the cab of a pickup contemplating the future of their farms. As they considered what may or may not impact their ability to survive in the 21st century, one of the things the trio identified was the rise of the anti- groups.

“While the pork and poultry industries were suffering more slings and arrows than we were, we always felt our day would come,” said Gary Corbett, former CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, in an interview with Successful Farming magazine in February 2016. A little over three years later, Fair Oaks Farms would find itself at the center of a crisis it had worked so hard to prevent.

The Disneyland of Ag

From the beginning, the goal of Fair Oaks Farms, Fair Oaks, Indiana, was to offer an up close and personal experience of a working farm and back it up with educational components to make even more of an impact. In January 2004, the Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure opened, and the journey began.

Through the years, the on-farm experience grew, and so did the crowds. Dubbed the Disneyland of agricultural tourism, the 40-acre attraction welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year.

The farm’s success is evidence that consumers want to understand how food gets from the farm to their refrigerator. It also opens the door for critics looking for flaws.

In August 2018, an Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) investigator infiltrated the farm’s workforce and recorded workers abusing calves for months. Hired as a calf care employee at the Prairie’s Edge North Barn, the investigator reportedly gathered more than 100 hours of footage.

Paring it down to about four minutes, the initial ARM video released on June 4, 2019, sought to destroy what took Fair Oaks Farms 15 years to build. 

“These undercover video campaigns are most certainly not new. We’ve been dealing with them for a number of years,” says Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications, Animal Agriculture Alliance. “Unfortunately, they still do have an impact on the public’s perception of animal agriculture.” 

ARM, which is based in Miami, Florida, also wrote a 148-page report detailing its investigation. The report stated, “Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure provides a look into their operations. It has been designed to show individuals what they want you to see. The founder of ARM, after taking the tour himself, decided to show the true side of operations.”

Groups like ARM are not just after cleaning up, amending, or changing the livestock industry. Their goal is to eliminate it. 

“One of the most significant ways the public can contribute to change in this industry is to choose plant-based choices and discontinue the consumption of dairy products,” reads a statement on ARM’s website.

“As long as there are people out there with this goal, we’re going to keep seeing these different types of attempts,” says Brianna Schroeder, an attorney with Janzen Agricultural Law. 

System Breakdown

As a participant in the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, Fair Oaks Farms thought it had a system in place to prevent what happened. Unfortunately, ARM found what it was looking for … a breakdown in oversight and management. 

“Fair Oaks Farms was our gold standard,” says Emily Yeiser Stepp, vice president, the National Dairy FARM Program. “It was a wake-up call for other producers to say, ‘If the gold standard could have a crack, certainly there are areas in my operation I can improve on.’ ”

Bottle feeding a calf at Fair Oaks Farm
Photo credit: Fair Oaks Farms
Created by the National Milk Producers Federation in partnership with Dairy Management Inc., FARM was launched to demonstrate dairy farmers’ commitment to producing quality milk with integrity. About 34,000 dairy farms are enrolled today – that’s approximately 98% of the milk supply. 

Member farms are subject to a rigorous framework of best practices to ensure the proper treatment of animals, including an evaluation at least once every three years by a second-party FARM animal care evaluator. When Fair Oaks alerted the organization in April 2018 that an employee had potentially recorded damaging video, FARM immediately deployed its investigation protocol, which requires an audit.

“Within 48 hours, an independent, third-party animal care expert was at the dairy to conduct the audit,” Yeiser Stepp says. “Initial reports were positive and found Fair Oaks met or exceeded our requirements.” 

Once the ARM videos surfaced, which also included a longer version, a second audit was done to ensure nothing was missed in the April findings. “A lot of the areas of concern documented in the June videos had already been taken care of,” she says.

Swiftly responding to the videos, Fair Oaks Farms CEO Mike McCloskey took full accountability for a breakdown in the system it had designed, an important step, experts say, in crisis communication. (See “The 5 C’s of Crisis Communication.”)

While beneficial, an evaluation and audit are only a snapshot in time. 

“First and foremost, a farmer has to be the eyes and ears on the farm every day to know where the gaps are,” Yeiser Stepp says. “No operation is perfect. It’s all about continuous improvement. We want to give farms the pathway forward to that improvement, because everyone deserves a second chance. The fact is this should never have happened, but it is certainly an opportunity for us to say, ‘Let’s open our eyes. Let’s truly look at ourselves critically and own some of these truths.’ ”

Prepare for What’s Coming

The goal of the Animal Agriculture Alliance is to help animal agriculture prepare for what might be coming at them in the future. It also works to debunk myths to ensure consumers have accurate information. 

Members include everyone from individual farmers and ranchers to associations and companies. Membership, which is close to 400, often grows after an incident like Fair Oaks Farms. “Producers realize they, too, may have to deal with this someday,” Thompson-Weeman says.

Historically, activist groups have been focused on large-scale farms, frequently labeled factory farms. In recent years, the alliance has seen that
focus shift.

“These groups have actually discussed the need to stop saying factory farm because it gives people the idea that a small farm is OK,” she says. “If a farm is raising animals for food – no matter the size – they are opposed to it.”

The alliance has seen backyard operations and even 4-H kids targeted. “As long as you are a part of animal agriculture, you will most likely find yourself dealing with one of these groups,” Thompson-Weeman says. 

It’s also why every farm – regardless of size – should have a crisis management plan in place. Since 2009, the FamilyFarms Group has been helping farmers create proactive plans.

“Whether you’re a small or large farm, a crisis can be devastating,” says Michelle Goeke, vice president, general counsel, FamilyFarms Group. “A crisis management plan is extremely important because it ensures a positive, proactive public image for a farm’s operation and its employees.”

A component of that management plan includes an emergency action strategy so everyone in the operation knows what, how, when, where, and why to respond quickly and effectively.

“This way, emergencies can be managed in a coordinated, timely, and effective manner,” Goeke says, adding that a plan should be reviewed at least once a year and after a crisis for additional improvements.

“Our first recommendation to farmers is to be beyond reproach,” Thompson-Weeman says. “Regardless of who may be watching, they need to make sure they are doing their best to do things right every single time.”

The 5 C's of crisis communication

When Iowa consumer Tracy Ellis first heard about the Fair Oaks Farms video, her initial assumption was that activists lack perspective on raising animals as a source of food vs. as a pet. 

“Once I did watch the video, I was appalled and couldn’t finish watching it,” Ellis says.

She also saw the response from Fair Oaks Farms CEO Mike McCloskey. “I was happy to see him take complete ownership for the abuse and promise to make changes,” Ellis says.

“As a veterinarian whose life and work are dedicated to the care, comfort, and safety of all animals, this has affected me deeply,” McCloskey said in a statement. “I am disappointed for not being aware of this kind of awful treatment occurring, and I take full responsibility for what has happened. I also take full responsibility to correct and ensure every employee understands, embraces, and practices the core values on which our organization stands.”

While McCloskey’s comments are an important step, the proof, Ellis says, will be in the follow-up.

If you’re faced with communicating in a crisis, Jill Miller, marketing manager for FamilyFarms Group, says you should implement the five C’s of crisis communication.

“Hopefully, you will never need to use these skills, but it’s much better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them,” she says.

  • Concern. When you know an accusation is unfounded, it’s easy to simply dismiss it instead of addressing the situation. 

“In order to be deemed credible, you have to relate,” Miller says. “If you dismiss accusations, the public will fight back. You have to let them know you care.”

  • Clarity. If you help the public fully understand the situation, they will judge you more favorably.
  • Commitment. The public needs to understand you are genuinely committed to communicating with them about the issue. 
  • Confidence. The public must believe you are capable of handling the situation. “You need to make them trust in you and in your operation,” Miller says.

As Ellis notes, handling the situation means you must also follow through on the promises you make to correct the issue. To ensure the public is aware of its progress, updates are posted on the Fair Oaks Farms website.

On June 6, 2019, Fair Oaks Farms began installing surveillance cameras in key areas where humans and animals interact. Ten days later, it announced the hiring of Walter Guterbock, a specialized dairy veterinarian and dairy manager with 30 years of
experience. His job is to oversee animal welfare operations, enhance training curriculum, and work in tandem with Enid Mendoza. A bilingual animal welfare expert who was raised on and worked at a dairy farm, Mendoza completed her veterinary training at Michigan State University. 

As of August 6, 2019, 100% of the planned cameras had been installed. Trained individuals monitor footage, including every milking barn and calf area. Animal welfare experts continue to train additional employees on monitoring.

  • Competence. If it seems like you don’t have all of the facts, people will not hesitate to call you out. “Unfortunately, the press and your community can’t see all of the details of how you handled a crisis, so they have to rely on how you deal with the spotlight,” Miller says. “Be prepared and know all the details of the incident.”

Tracking Animal Activists

Keeping an eye on animal rights activists’ organizations opposed to animal agriculture – in any form – is a core component of the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s mission. Founded in 1987, the alliance has profiles on more than 170
activist groups. At least 40 of those were formed in the past five years. There are a few key reasons for the growth.

“There are a lot of different issues at play,” says Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications, Animal Agriculture Alliance. “Consumers have questions about where their food comes from and how it is produced, which is something we in animal agriculture should be celebrating. We should also be there to answer their questions, but there is a gap between farm and fork.”

This opening gives activist groups an opportunity to distort reality to further their objective, which is to undermine consumer trust in animal agriculture. 

Activists are also taking advantage of the internet. “It’s much easier for people to come together and coalesce around certain issues because they can find one another using social media platforms, which activist groups do extensively,” she says.

The alliance is seeing a lot of splintering of groups, which is very intentional. Some portray themselves as very professional and only want to talk about animal welfare on the surface. Other groups are very up-front about their goals and are very extreme. They are the protesters and vandals. While they may use different tactics, their end goal remains the same. 

Thompson-Weeman says the alliance is also doing a better
job of tracking these groups. “It is so important to understand who these organizations are and which tactics they are using,” she says.

Founded in 2010 by Richard Couto, Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) is a nonprofit organization that uses undercover investigative tactics to reveal animal abuse. Supported by gifts, grants, contributions, and membership fees, ARM has raised extensive funds in its nearly 10 years in existence. In its first year of operation, the organization reported $77,248 in public support on IRS Form 990. In 2018, that number increased to $2,651,746. The organization’s undercover investigations have led to the closure of up to 138 illegal animal cruelty operations in the state of Florida alone, according to a statement by ARM.

Editor’s note: Attempts to contact ARM founder Richard Couto went unanswered. 

Tips for hiring employees

The idea that any employee would harm an animal is unacceptable. While ensuring your animal care practices are beyond reproach is the first line of defense to protecting livestock, producers must also check that employees are there for the right reason – to provide exceptional care to livestock.

“Unfortunately, it’s a common strategy for some animal rights organizations: Individuals go undercover to record videos that can be taken out of context, stage scenes of animal mistreatment, or encourage abuse to record it without doing anything to stop it,” says Hannah Thompson-Weeman of Animal Agriculture Alliance.

Here are seven tips for hiring and training: 

  • Screen applicants thoroughly; verify information and check all references. “I can’t tell you how many times clients tell me they’ve asked for references but never gotten around to calling them,” says Brianna Schroeder, Janzen Agricultural Law.
  • Be wary of someone using a college ID as proof of identification, driving a vehicle with out-of-state license plates, or looking for short-term work.
  • Listen for answers that seem rehearsed or include incorrect use of farm terms during the interview.
  • Research applicants to see if they have a social media profile, website, or blog. Look for questionable content or connections to activist organizations.
  • Require a signed employment agreement. “This document gives farmers an extra stick in their bundle of rights. It can include things like rules on social media, cell phone use, and taking recordings,” Schroeder says.
  • Require employees to sign an animal care policy. Train and update on proper animal handling. Mandate immediate reporting of any mistreatment. 
  • Watch for red flags. For example, is an employee entering an area not required for the job?
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