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Farmers For Fairness

Sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands. And that's exactly what an agriculturally based, grassroots group of about 2,000 did in North Carolina.This is not a vigilante group stalking their adversaries in the night. They concentrate on stalking untruths and unfairness in the legislative process and in the media in broad daylight, through organized lobbying, public protests and media

Sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands. And that's exactly what an agriculturally based, grassroots group of about 2,000 did in North Carolina.

This is not a vigilante group stalking their adversaries in the night. They concentrate on stalking untruths and unfairness in the legislative process and in the media in broad daylight, through organized lobbying, public protests and media messages.

Farmers for Fairness, Inc. was born out of necessity when North Carolina legislators met for a "short session" in 1996. On the docket were livestock building setback issues and the threat of a 2-year moratorium on future construction.

The prospect of a moratorium got a group of North Carolinians riled up enough to band together. The group included crop and livestock producers and the allied industries that service them.

Formally incorporated in June 1996, Farmers for Fairness (FFF) represents more than 2,000 farmers and is a force to be reckoned with. Lu-Ann Coe laughingly says she became the lead spokesperson for the group because she "missed a meeting." But, she's entirely serious about the message the group intends to send.

Her strong organizational skills brought her to the forefront when her employer, Hog Slat Inc. President Tommy Herring, saw the moratorium coming. His concern was not about jobs in his manufacturing plant, but also the domino effect that would be felt by contractors, subcontractors and the entire infrastructure of the state's pork industry.

Coe was drafted as the "rally organizer" on a Thursday in April of 1997. Her marching orders - get as many people to the state house in Raleigh as possible for a rally on Wednesday. "We'll shut down the plant, the office. Shut down construction and haul the subcontractors off the job sites. Get buses. I want everybody in Raleigh. And, call everybody else," Herring said.

By Wednesday morning, Coe had recruited about 1,000 people, 500 came from Hog Slat and their subcontractors. This was Coe's initiation into the political arena.

The next week, the call went out again, and rally numbers grew to 1,500. The following week a third rally was being planned when it was learned that the governor planned to call for a 2-year moratorium during his weekly press conference. Another call for support drew nearly 2,000 to the press conference and the rally that followed.

It's been just over a year since that initial flurry of activity. Growing demands have escalated Coe into a new position as a fulltime lobbyist for FFF. Some of the lessons she's learned as the fledgling group grew and developed could prove valuable to producers and pork industry allies. Coe ticked off several valuable lessons learned the past two years:

Lesson #1 - Do it right from the start. FFF is an agricultural trade group under the IRS code, much as their state pork producers group is organized. "We did everything by the book; we consulted a tax attorney, hired a CPA; we crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i.' We have to be air tight, legally, or someone will try to pick us apart," Coe declares.

Lesson #2 - Develop your public affairs strategy. Coe and her FFF constituents have a basic, matter-of-fact philosophy: "If you don't get involved in the political process, you really can't bitch about it."

To help with this strategizing they turned to veteran political strategist, Carter Wrenn, who worked on Jesse Helms' senatorial campaign and Steve Forbes' presidential campaign. Wrenn is on a retainer.

And, Coe asserts, remember this public affairs golden rule: "If you don't want it known, don't tell it."

Designate a spokesperson that understands the strategy, the group's positioning on specific issues. "You must constantly tweak your strategy. No one, and I mean no one, should make a statement except the designated person."

Lesson #3 - Don't allow politicians to pigeonhole your industry. "We've got to get beyond this big vs. small, integrator vs. independent mentality. We're all producers. It doesn't matter. But, it's what they will use against you - and many are buying into it. Get it out of your mind.

"Why is it that just because you have a contract (to raise hogs) - you're not a family farmer in some peoples' eyes?" she asks. "Family farmers have contracted grain for years. How is a contract with hogs different from a contract with grain?"

Lesson #4 - Commitment. "Most people don't understand the level of commitment and time that has to go into something like this. It's day in and day out; it's nights; it's weekends."

That commitment must come from the grassroots level, and that's what makes organizing this kind of group difficult.

Lesson #5: Establish a core group. This is your "quick response" team. FFF has 10-12 people they can call on in a moment's notice. If you plan to play in this league, this fast-action team is important, Coe says.

Lesson #6 - Polling is important. To respond to issues and questions effectively, you need a better understanding of how the general public, or an individual reporter, perceives your industry. In North Carolina, they learned that pork producers, particularly, didn't so much have a public relations problem as they had a political problem.

"We polled and found out that people didn't understand that pork producers recycle hog manure as organic fertilizer on crops, for example," says Coe. A poll led them to develop an ad positioning pork producers as recyclers - a very positive image.

She says of the media: "We always knew that we would never find fairness, let alone friendship, in the state newspaper." That's important to know and accept because it helped develop their strategy in dealing with questions from reporters.

Lesson #7 - Establish a clipping service. This is an important part of your network of support people. "You've got to answer whatever questions are out there. A clipping service (newspapers, magazines) will alert your group," Coe explains. Clipping services can be hired or you may assign it to someone in the group, or take turns.

And, just as important, be sure to respond to untruths and printed deceptions. Find someone in your group that's good at responding with the facts. Hire someone if you have to. "Remember, if theirs is the only voice out there, people will believe everything that's written about you," Coe says.

Lesson #8 - Persistence, documentation pays. "You must keep your eye on the horizon, ignore the speed bumps. They will come after you, they will challenge you.

"Our campaign took a big turn when we stumbled across a document in the Division of Water Quality that showed that from Dec. 1, 1996 until July 15, 1997 there had been over 400 municipality spills in the state," Coe explains.

The information was incorporated into a TV ad. And, as Coe tells it, the media got very quiet for a couple of weeks. Then they asked where we got that information. Naturally, the group shared the report. Soon they were seeing reporters waving it around and citing the municipal spills.

"That story is no longer buried in the newspapers," she points out. "More importantly, a Senate bill dealing with spills was no longer hog-specific, it included municipalities.

"One reporter told me: 'Hog farms are about profits, municipalities are for the public good.' Our response was: 'The river doesn't know the difference.'

"You've got to do the research, This is all public information. You can look at anything you want to under the Freedom of Information Act. Don't let them stonewall you," Coe emphasizes.

But, most of all, remember that accuracy reigns supreme. "We are absolutely hell bent that everything that gets into print or on the air is the truth, the absolute truth and it's been checked, cross-checked, and checked again," she says.

Lesson #9 - Hire a single-issue lobbyist. This approach will help avoid the political wrangling often faced by multi-faceted lobbyists. "As a single-issue lobbyist, no one legislator can come to me and say: 'If you don't shut up about this pig stuff, I'm going to kill you on your child care bill.' They don't have that kind of leverage over me. I can say: 'Sorry, I can't back off. This is what I'm paid to do. This is my one and only issue. This is my job, how I pay my mortgage. This is my life."

Lesson #10 - Establish a working structure. FFF has a managing committee that deals directly with the political strategist. He and his staff do much of the research, script writing and positioning. Coe and others assist in the research and help maintain the grassroots perspective.