Today, most farmers are quite concerned about the misrepresentation of agriculture by media and activists, and consumers' knowledge - or lack thereof - surrounding it.
By way of Illinois Farm Families, corn, soy, beef and pork producers finally have a chance to put the facts in front of consumers.
Earlier this month, hog farmer Chris Gould of Maple Park hosted six IFF Field Moms - Chicago-area moms with no experience in production agriculture - on his family's farm to answer their questions about modern hog production.
"We have people out at our farm all the time for tours, but this experience was a little different in the sense that, in previous tours, we've just had people out and told them what we do," Gould says. "The Illinois Farm Families effort gives us a chance to answer all of their questions. It's more about these Field Moms running the show versus us just giving them a tour of our farm."
Still, the tour of Gould's farm came at a time when pork producers across the country are feeling the pinch - falling just after McDonald's announcement to review the use of gestation crates on their producers' farms.
"We were ready to answer their questions about gestation crates, but they really didn't ask about the crates until we brought it up," Gould adds. "The Field Moms really just wanted to know about pork production in general. They were asking how we do it and why we do it, but they weren't contentious. They didn't ask finger-in-the-chest type questions."
Still, to help answer the tough questions the moms might have about modern pork production and gestation crates, Janeen Salak-Johnson, an associate professor in animal sciences at the University of Illinois, was on hand.
And, while Salak-Johnson regularly speaks at swine industry events and with producers, she was still a bit uneasy about presenting her research on sow housing directly to consumers.
"I was concerned when the Illinois Pork Producers asked me to do this because people always say you can't win an emotional argument with science," Salak-Johnson notes. "But the moms received the data very well. I think they understood what my research shows - that each pig is different. What works for a sow may not necessarily work for a young pig or a boar. And, for the sows, more space doesn't necessarily equate to quality of space. Beyond their physical space, sows need space that means something for them. The Field Moms could see the sows were cared for and had the quality of life to perform the things they needed to."
As a mother of four and someone who did not grow up on a farm herself, Salak-Johnson understands where the questions come from. But, she adds, the way the moms responded to the research and information confirms what she's been telling producers and organizations for years.
"I've always said we need to have more respect for the soccer moms," Salak-Johnson says. "After all, they're the ones buying the product and educating their kids. They aren't ignorant; they just want you to be up-front. These women aren't farm girls, but they asked such educated and intelligent questions without knowing anything about the production system. The questions they asked were triggered by information being shared or conversations being had."
Both Gould and Salak-Johnson say other farmers and agricultural groups could learn an important lesson from their experiences with the Illinois Farm Families Field Moms: It's time to stop playing only defense.
"We need to be educating the people that are making the decisions and consuming our products - those are the folks we're going to win with," Dr. Salak-Johnson adds. "We aren't going to win by ignoring the issues or their questions. If there's something we're doing well - or even not so well - we need to tell people that. We need to be out there answering their questions."