Feeding the Masses

When Dale Stevermer started promoting the swine industry to consumers, he was promoting the industry’s final product — pork. While promotion of the pork product through grilling events and in-store campaigns is still important, today there is a greater emphasis put on the promotion of the image of the farmers themselves.

Dale and his wife, Lori, of Trails End Farm near Easton, MN, have been active in both volunteering for and “selling” the pork industry. Lori is the current president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association (MPPA). Dale served as the president of the Minnesota Pork Board (MPB) in 2005. A few years back, their family was even featured in a billboard campaign — “to put a face to pork production,” in the words of Lori. The couple, along with their children — Brett, Adam and Beth — were pictured in front of the barns of their 150-sow farrow-to-finish farm.

Since then, other opportunities have come about to tell the industry’s story. Both Stevermers were trained in public speaking as part of the Operation Main Street (OMS) outreach program, launched in 2004 by the pork checkoff. OMS began as an outreach effort to put pig farmers in front of local civic organizations. “We got to meet with local Lions and Kiwanis clubs to talk about farming and the economic impact, what a 1,200-sow farm brings to the community as far as tax revenues, etc.,” Lori says.

Dale adds OMS was a way to get “a real pig farmer in to talk to the movers and shakers of the community.”

Just as the promotion techniques have changed over the years, so has OMS. “OMS 2.0,” as Lori calls it, has extended the speaking program to be geared more toward dietitians and food experts. As an example, she visited New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva High School in southern Minnesota this spring, where she spoke to a culinary arts class and a sports nutrition class. “After a while, you can only speak to so many Lions clubs, so we need to keep it fresh to get our message out in front of a new audience,” she says.

Lori says it continues to be a challenge when it comes to targeting the pork message. “In our discussions, we’re always trying to figure out what is the best age to reach people,” she says. “Some say it’s the elementary students; get them while they’re young. Some say the junior high, because that’s when the children are making their own decisions about what they are going to eat.” Still others say college students are a prime target due to all sorts of different dietary messages being thrown their way.

Taking It to the Streets

In Minnesota, pig farmers have decided to take their message on the road, with another outreach program, called Oink Outings. The MPB and MPPA (jointly referred to as Minnesota Pork) introduced Oink Outings as a way to listen and respond to consumer questions and concerns about how farmers raise and care for their pigs. Oink Outing booth events take place at Twin Cities venues, such as farmers markets, zoos and community events. “Rather than expecting the people to come to us, we go to them,” Lori explains.

This is the fourth year for the Oink Outings, with about 25 such outings taking place each summer mainly in St. Paul, Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs. Farmers and Minnesota Pork staff are on hand to handle any questions thrown their way. “You get the basic questions: ‘Are your pigs raised inside or outside?,’ ‘What do you feed them?,’ ‘How many pigs in a litter?’” says Lori, who is a marketing specialist for Hubbard Feeds, based in Mankato, MN. Dale adds that they also get the hard-hitting questions about antibiotics, hormones, gestation stalls and antibiotic resistance. “You’ve got to be on your toes for when those questions come along,” he says.

In addition to helping get the pork story to the masses, Oink Outings also benefits a worthy cause. For every question asked, Minnesota Pork donates 1 pound of pork to Second Harvest Heartland food shelves, with more than 5,000 lb. of pork being donated last year. The events offer something for everyone. “We have [temporary] tattoos and sunglasses for the kids, and then we can engage Mom and Dad in conversation,” Lori says. She notes that breaking it down into the very basics of communication is what it’s all about: simply having a conversation. “I think people are surprised that they are talking to a real farmer.”

Just as consumers come in all demographics, so do pig farmers, and that is represented in those staffing the Oink Outings tent. “You see farmers of all ages,” Lori says. “We get some on the older side, and then we’re also getting a number of recent college grads. It’s good to see the young farmers involved. I think the younger farmers resonate better with the younger families who visit us.” Lori believes younger farmers communicate differently, mainly due to the prevalence of social media, which has also changed the way pig farmers tell their story and reach consumers.

Running a Blog

Both Dale and Lori have written blogs, which they approach like “online stories,” to promote pork and pig farming. Both Stevermers ventured into the blogging world ahead of the 2010 Grandma’s Marathon, held annually in Duluth, MN, and they brought Minnesota Pork along on the way.

While Dale ran the 26.2 miles from Two Harbors, MN, that year, Minnesota Pork was sharing pork samples and its message near the finish line in Duluth, on the southwest side of Lake Superior. “They [runners] are a fine-tuned audience; they are concerned what they put in their body,” he says. Minnesota Pork’s presence has become an expected mainstay at the annual June run, and it have even taken its show on the road to the Boston Marathon the past three years. The Power Pork blog, porkpower.wordpress.com, centers on pork and marathon training, and is the work of a team of writers. The blog is sponsored by the MPB, and in addition to the Stevermers, Monica Schafer of Goodhue, MN, also contributes.

Since projects such as Oink Outings and OMS cannot reach everybody, digging deeper into the social media offerings helps pig farmers have a broader reach to consumers.

Again, Minnesota Pork is reaching out with the new Pig3D, a program still in its early stages that makes a direct connection between pig farmers and food influencers (see story below). As part of the Pig3D program, the Stevermers are one of three families to be featured in videos, showing the public their farms. “Gone are the days of being able to give tours of our barns, due to biosecurity issues,” Lori says. “People think since we won’t let them in our barns, we’re hiding something. … These Pig 3D videos will take people into our barns.”

The national pork checkoff has also launched a social media outreach program to help pig farmers share their stories with consumers. Dale was recently trained in the #RealPigFarming program. The idea is that whenever pig farmers are telling their stories on social media avenue —, whether blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Google+ — they are to use the #RealPigFarming hashtag. This will enable more consumers to find real pig farming information from real pig farmers when they are searching online.

Regardless the mode of communication, as Lori explains, the Stevermers have learned that if given the chance to explain the industry, “Most people will understand why we do things the way we do. It’s just frustrating that we can’t have that conversation with more people,” Lori says.

Today’s social media allow more pig farmers to talk with more consumers — and as Lori sees it, every farmer should be trained to learn how to converse with consumers and how to use all the avenues at hand. “It’s good for all farmers to go through such training: how to feel good about what you’re doing, you’re part of the food chain and that you should be proud of it,” she says.

Though a lot of these conversations and advocacy programs are intended for an urban audience, the Stevermers see a need to educate right down the road due to the changes in agriculture and society. “There are a lot of farm sites without a tractor,” Dale says. “We need to educate our neighbors, too.”     

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