Our Voice: Agriculture's venture into public relations necessary

It's about time those in the agriculture industry jumped onto the public relations bandwagon.

Big agriculture has gotten a black eye in recent years, some of it deserved but much of it not. Controversies about genetically modified foods, animal husbandry practices and other issues recently gained new ground with ballot measures and social media.

Farmers' instincts were to go on the defensive. And that is never the best position to come from in a public relations battle.

Slowly, those in agriculture have learned from watching the successes of those who oppose big agriculture and its alleged practices.

Agriculture has learned a big lesson: If you don't like the way someone else is telling your story, start telling it yourself.

Farmers are reaching out to mothers concerned about how their children's food is produced, giving them tours and teaching them why things are done the way they are. Sound reasons exist for the use of gestation crates for pregnant sows, for example, namely protecting tiny piglets from their much larger omnivorous mothers. Animal rights groups have argued otherwise, successfully banning the practice in some locales by telling the story with their own spin.

Farmers need to tell the story themselves to explain the practice and the purpose for it, how in many cases the practices protect animals from injury.

It's easy for animal activists to gather support for their campaigns. Most folks have a soft spot for animals, and without the other side of the story, it's easy to use emotion rather than fact to influence public opinion.

Chickens in California are set to get much larger cages, thanks to a voter-approved measure that requires their cages to be big enough to let them spread their wings without touching. Eggs may get a lot more expensive come 2015, when California hopes to ban imports of eggs from other states that don't comply with its standards once the regulations go into effect.

Plants also are a target. Regulations on genetically modified foods have been put before voters, though the ag industry has fought back with bigger dollars, defeating those measures in many cases. The debate has spurred protests against companies like Monsanto Corp., which sells modified seeds.

Those opposing foods made with modified seeds have very little science to support their argument. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a critic of unhealthy foods, says there's no evidence they're harmful. But that hasn't stopped the controversy, or the demand for new labeling by a vocal group of activists.

We saw that battle play out in our state as farmers appeared in advertising on both sides of the issue during election season. Washington voters defeated the measure, which would have required labeling on genetically modified foods. But lawmakers in other states have passed laws to require labeling.

Though agriculture always has been resistant to tooting its own horn, the industry is finally catching up in the public relations world. It had a ready-made story to tell. Farmers always have been stewards of the land and caretakers of animals. Putting that into words and getting it to the public was the greater challenge. Social media, a tool favored by ag opponents, also can work in farmers' favor.

Our state has some shining examples, with dairy farmers here talking about "cow comfort" and explaining that happy cows produce more and better milk. Or the Washington Beef Commission's "Ranch Wife Life" blog, written by an Eastern Washington mom and cattle producer. And one that made national headlines, with the Washington State Potato Commission's director going on an all-potato diet and losing weight and getting healthier in the process.

The stories are there, and they are powerful. The ag industry just needs to keep on telling them.