Tell Consumers the Truth About Food Production

Hoosier Perspectives

Lay out the message, warts and all, and let consumers understand.

Published on: February 18, 2013

If what I'm about to say sounds somewhat like what I said last week, you're very perceptive. One week ago I presented the argument to get behind the Dodge Superbowl commercial featuring Paul Harvey and ask city cousins to watch it. Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it's the most positive message shown to a huge public audience about agriculture in a long time, maybe in my lifetime. It's not every day you can speak in positive tones to 100 million people.

Set aside the quibbling about whether Harvey was the right spokesperson, if the images were politically correct, and accept it and promote it for what it was – an excellent portrayal of the heart of America, farmers and agriculture.

The leaders behind the scene at the 2013 Livestock and Grain Forum chose to show it to the entire 500 people assembled there, and I applaud them for it.

Now to this week's point. There seems to be an undertone, especially in animal agriculture in Indiana, that if there is any way a consumer could portray some practice or picture or statement as negative, then it should be kept in the dark and only whispered about 'among friends,' meaning farmers and other ag groups. It happens when someone, albeit well meaning, asks a reporter not to print something they're saying at a public meeting, or to only use positive pictures on Websites.

Public means public – any statement at a public meeting is fair game for reporters – even ag reporters. In general, ag reporters paint agriculture in a positive light. There are two reasons for that, in my humble opinion. First, most of what agriculture does is positive. Most farmers use practices on animals that reduce stress yet maintain efficiency. Most farmers do what they can to limit soil erosion.

Second, people in the ag press nearly without exception want agriculture and farmers to succeed. I, for one, enjoy my job because my number one priority is to provide information that will help farmers be even more efficient, or more productive or more profitable. It's also to highlight issues that will help farm families survive in a new environment compared to the past.

All that said, we're still journalists, and the rules of journalism apply. If Purdue University Extension, for example, sponsors a public meeting, and a reporter is in the audience, farm reporter or general press, anything said is on the record. If it's something that the presenter thinks shouldn't be heard or read by everyone, then they need to find a different way to deliver their message to their target audience.

There's a greater principle at stake here. Consumers deserve to know the truth. At times even agriculture has a wart or two. If it's explained properly, most people will understand that. Farmers who discover it will use it as the basis to remove the wart. You can't fix what you don't know is broken.

If there is some sense of 'hush-hush' behavior that seeps into the public consciousness, that sows the seeds of distrust much more so than just telling the truth.

As an ag journalist, I'm obligated to tell the truth from both sides of the coin as best as I can. Most of the time what I report meets with my two goals laid out above, because the message about farmers and agriculture is nearly always positive. In those few times when it's not, I need to report that too, carefully and accurately –not to sensationalize, but to be fair and credible.

Sometimes we miss the mark as well. No one is perfect. The intent is sincere. I'm not the first to say this, but I wish I was: Put the truth out there before reasonable people, and most of the time they will make the right decision.