MIDDLETOWN—Most people don’t know that Orange County farmers are top producers of cabbages, onions, and pumpkins in the country. These farmers work their farms without fanfare while well-heeled activists beat the drum about agricultural issues that are often inaccurate.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension for Orange County invited Jessica Ziehm, a PR expert in agricultural issues, to present ways that farmers can generate a positive spin on their important job of feeding the nation. Ziehm, whose extended family operates a 950-cow dairy farm near Saratoga Springs, showed participants simple and inexpensive ways to connect with consumers and neighbors.
“Public relations is not something that needs this huge ad campaign,” Ziehm said. She held up a postcard with images of her farm that she gives to visitors and legislators. “It’s old fashioned but people love this.”
Meet the Neighbors
Ziehm recognizes that farmers don’t have a lot of time for outreach, but they need to make an effort. “We need to do a better job with communicating to the public. It has to start with our next door neighbors.”
Georgiana “Chip” Watson has a weekly radio talk show on WTBQ on horses. Orange County boasts many horse farms and her program is popular among horse owners.
Watson does her own brand of PR by occasionally delivering cookies and taking the time to chat. “I do a lot of this,” she said, “because I want to keep on good terms with my neighbors.”
Dismissing the public relations aspect of their business can be costly. Neighbors can make life difficult for a farmer–an inaccurate perception can turn into reality. A smelly farm next door can find itself faced with unfavorable local regulations or state laws. “Even though they are the consumer,” Ziehm said, “and they may be just our next door neighbor, they have a say as to how we farm.”
The corporate nature of farming might disquiet some neighbors. “There are multiple families on a farm which looks a little peculiar to our neighbors who may be used to thinking about Old MacDonald’s Farm,” Ziehm said.
Ziehm said consumers want to meet farmers. Her dairy farm sells its milk to Cabot Cheese. She and her husband met an enthusiastic mob during a Cabot Cheese promotion in New York City, called the Gratitude Tour.
The company brought over 100 dairy farmers to the city for the event. Ziehm and husband arrived at a supermarket in Brooklyn in the early morning hours of a Saturday to demo cheese, hand out samples, and answer shoppers’ questions.
She was flabbergasted at their reception. “There was a mob of people waiting. ‘The farmers are here! The farmers are here! Are you guys the farmers? The farmers are here!’ I was not expecting that,” Ziehm said. “Farmers are a novelty these days.”
Every year dairy farmers operate a birthing center at the state fair where they calve three cows every day for the fair’s duration. Ziehm says the exhibit attracts 250,000 people and they stay for hours. “They come for the birth,” she said. “The reason they stay is because we have farmers.” From around the state 350 farmers volunteer to come in and answer questions and talk with fair goers.
What consumers really want is know is who the farmers are: “our authenticity, that we are real people. We are the ones that are actually farming.”
Most consumers have never visited a real farm and Ziehm says they may have been away from the farming experience for generations. This is especially the case for millennials. “They have no connection to agriculture whatsoever, other than what they are reading on the Internet.”
This came home to Ziehm when she attended a conference in Florida for consumers. A consumer panel of millennials had a very small connection to agriculture. For Ziehm, it was sad. “They don’t trust anybody—the government, farmers, brand names. They trust their friends.”
When a small group of activists at the opposite end of the spectrum sound off, consumers become wary. From her own experience, Ziehm said consumers worry about antibiotics in milk and milk products. They may not be aware that there are no antibiotics in any milk sold, even if it doesn’t say so on the carton.
“People get caught up in all kinds of marketing terms,” Ziehm said. Activists, although small in number, “have pretty deep pockets and a pretty loud voice. We need to start opening those barn doors and tell our stories.”
Attendee Nancy MacNamara who owns Honey Locust farm near Newburgh, now considers using her Masters degree in photography to make a difference. “It’s making me think about how I can use my particular talents, my passions, to reach out to the community and stimulate some kind of interest in producing a new face for agriculture.”
The feedback can be rewarding in many ways, especially encouraging the trust of those who buy their products. Ziehm says most consumers do trust farmers. “We are a trusted entity. We are seen as a trusted source of information.”
Ziehm travels the state in her public relations role as executive director of the NY Animal Agriculture Coalition. The challenge for hard-working farmers, she said, is having the time or the skill set to have that conversation with consumers and neighbors.
“I think this is the root of a lot of issues that we are having in agriculture today,” Ziehm said, “whether it’s regulations or politics. It’s a true understanding and appreciation for what farmers are doing.”
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