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Let’s Get This Conversation Started

I don’t usually turn to the New York Times when I’m trolling for pork industry news, but an article published in last Friday’s issue of that newspaper definitely caught my attention. This is how it started, “Sow 44733 had broken the shoulder of one of her penmates, rousted another who was huddled in the corner and was chewing on the ear of a third.” This served as the first clue that this wasn’t going to be a typical “the-world-would-be-better-without-gestation-crates” story in the non-farm media.

Granted, the headline, “Pig Farmers Face Pressure on the Size of the Sty,”  was a bit hokey and out-of-touch.  However, the thing that gave me some hope for the urban view of our industry was the nod to the real-world descriptions of pork production and a fair amount of detail about why producers raise pigs the way they do. The story included the following quote from pork producer Tom Dittmer, “The reason the industry switched to crates wasn’t because we wanted to harm our animals. We did it because we thought it was what was best for the animals.”

One of the highlights of my journalistic year was having a chance to attend the Center for Food Integrity’s North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture in Chicago early this summer. Attendees at this meeting included agricultural producers, food distributors and restaurant and grocery store supply chain managers from across North America. This was a great place to hear some pretty thoughtful discussions about how the pork industry is perceived. The conference concluded with a question-and-answer session conducted with a consumer panel from around the Chicago area. Most of the panel members had absolutely no connection to, or experience with, livestock production or farmers.  A story about the panel members’ views appeared in the June 15, 2012 issue of National Hog Farmer.

The sincere desire expressed by some of those panel members to learn the “real story” about where their food comes from gave me hope. They were willing to have a conversation, and even wanted to learn more. The problem is that they weren’t talking to the right people.

One of the people I met at the conference was Brad Hennen, a farrow-to-wean producer from Ghent, MN, attending on behalf of the Minnesota Pork Board. Having recently participated in a Minnesota Pork Board-sponsored promotion in an urban setting, Hennen had first-hand experience with the types of questions his non-farm customers were asking. “During an event at the Minnesota Zoo, I fielded questions ranging from, ‘why do you feed so many chemicals,’ to ‘why do you use gestation stalls?’ Though challenging, those are the questions we want to have asked of us when we have the ability to answer,” he told me.

“One of the biggest challenges facing the pork industry right now is how to establish lines of communication with the people who are buying our product. We need to find open lines of communication because there is a huge disconnect between the producer and the consumer. I would argue that it doesn’t benefit either the consumer or the producer when we are doing most of our communicating through the media,” Hennen says.

My life experiences have given me a chance to have my feet planted in a couple of different worlds. Growing up on a hog farm in South Dakota, most of the people my family dealt with on a daily basis had a pretty down-to-earth perception about where their food comes from. Moving to the suburban Twin Cities area in Minnesota helped me see that not everyone appreciates their access to safe, affordable food. While they may be “talking with their mouth’s full” when criticizing the farmers who feed them, the fact remains that the often-confused, sometimes critical consumers are, indeed, still talking. Here’s the bottom-line question that I continue to ponder. How do pork producers become meaningful, credible participants in these conversations?

Pork producers are lucky there are resources to help them prepare in advance for conversations with consumers.  Pork Checkoff dollars are hard at work generating producer training that can help build confidence and offer tips about how to get the positive message across to a curious public. “Producers know so well what they do on their own farms and how it benefits both their animals and consumers,” explains Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president for communications at the National Pork Board. “However, it can be challenging at times to answer questions from people who may not be familiar with pork production, particularly questions with negative connotations.”

The National Pork Board offers a host of Checkoff-funded programs and training opportunities for producers. Programs such as Operation Main Street help producers learn how to tell their own positive story to civic and community organizations. The Neighbor to Neighbor program is a two-hour course that helps producers practice answering one-on-one questions that may be asked by non-farm community members. Resources such as the “We Care” Web site at are places producers can refer non-farm neighbors who want to learn more about how pigs are raised today.Videos on the Web site also help tell the story about modern pork production.  

Several times throughout the year, the National Pork Board offers a social media training seminar for producers who may interested in learning how to tell their story more effectively through avenues such as Facebook and Twitter. “We help producers learn how to participate in the social media conversation, both by listening and telling their positive pork production story,” Cunningham says. Producers can learn more about all of these Checkoff-funded programs by calling the Pork Checkoff Service Center at (800) 456-7675, or visiting the Web site.

Remember, October is Pork Month. What a great time to both promote your favorite pork recipes, and maybe get some conversations started at the same time. Last week we told you we’ve started a section on the National Hog Farmer Web site just for positive pork stories. Check out our “Every Month is Pork Month” section.

We would like to have more conversations with you, our pork producer readers, too.  Watch for our new National Hog Farmer weekly blog posts.  Please let us know what’s on your mind. Do you have any thoughts or examples about how you share your story with your neighbors?  How do you initiate conversations with the end-users of the great pork products you produce?  Post your experiences in the comment section below this story, or email [email protected]

Happy Pork Month!


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