“A beef farmer and two Farm Bureau employees invite an HSUS employee on a conference call….” It sounds like the start of a bad joke. Comical thought, but that would never happen and if it did, it wouldn’t end well. Right?
That was the exact situation Brantley, Stefanie, and I found ourselves in during our last VALOR Seminar session in Northern Virginia and the great District of Columbia. Prior to the trip, we were broken up into groups of three or four to make special interest group visits. Megan emailed the assignment list out and as I scanned down the list of groups, I wasn’t super surprised at the organizations I saw – National Milk Producers, American Feed Industry Association, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Then I saw the words “Humane Society of the United States” and with my name next to it. I could feel my blood pressure rising and I had a flash back to January 2011.
If you know me (or read my intro blog), you have probably heard about the Animal Rights Activist Encounter of 2011. At that time, I thought because I had been a state FFA officer and that I shared pro-ag facebook posts, that I was a big time AGvocate. Looking back, I was just preaching to the choir (as many of us in the industry are guilty of). I felt like I was doing my part as an agricultural advocate, because I was getting positive feedback from friends, family and others involved in the industry, but I had never been challenged. But, as I later found out, if you never allow yourself to be challenged, you’ll never get to truly test your advocacy abilities.
It was second semester freshman year at Virginia Tech and I was hustling across campus with a friend, when I was noticed we were walking through a group of people handing out brochures. This isn’t unusual on campus. You just take whatever they are handing out and smile/nod acknowledgement of their message as you keep walking. I did just this, but slowed down when I noticed that the brochure had pigs on the front cover. That’s interesting, I thought. Very rarely did you see agricultural information on this side of the dining halls. When I opened it up, I found graphic photos of dead animals, bold words calling out farmers as animal abusers and murderers. I saw red. I remember coming to a dead stop and did an about-face, zeroing in on the girl that had handed me the brochure. My friend was trailing along behind me, calling my name nervously. As calmly as I could, I approached the girl and asked what group she was with and where she was from. She explained she was with an animal right group out of Boston and they were on a tour of college campuses showing people was farming was REALLY like and encouraging people to pursue a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle to stop animal abuse. She asked if I was interested in learning more. No, I didn’t. I explained that I grew up on a beef cattle farm and that everything in the brochure she was handing out was a lie about what my family did for a living. She started to apologize and said that they didn’t mean to disrespect family farms, it was mostly the corporate factory farms they were trying to bring down. With over 98 percent of farms in the US still family owned and operated, this is where I had my meltdown. I don’t remember much about the conversation after that point (I quasi blacked out from anger). I do remember giving her the brochure back and causing a small scene. To make a long story short, I went back to my dorm, wrote a letter to the editor of the collegiate times about misconceptions in the agriculture industry, which led to me pursing a second major in multimedia journalism and redirecting a passion for agriculture education to opportunities outside the classroom. It was a pivot point in my future career goals.
I’ve told this story many times as an example of what NOT to do when trying to bridge the gap between producer and consumer. Looking back, I felt completely ambushed – I wasn’t ready to be having a conversation where I felt like I was defending my family and a livelihood that I was passionate about. I acted emotionally and didn’t try to create a two-way conversation. But the thing is this could happen to anyone, anywhere, at anytime – a true advocate must be ready for the opportunity to have a conversation at the drop of a hat. About a year later, I read a blog written by Katie Pinke, entitled “Three Things I Learned From An Animal Rights Activist in an Airplane.” One of her points was to “find common connections and build upon them.” I could have used that tip in 2011.
Flash forward to 2019, and that point was at the forefront of my mind as our small group dialed the phone number for the director of Farm Animal Protection at HSUS. What in the world could we possibly have in common with this guy? I thought.
It was shocking to discover how much we did have in common. Having grown up on a beef cattle ranch in Idaho, the former lawyer had a passion for horses. After 17 years in private practice, he led an HSUS initiative that resulted in establishing a large horse sanctuary in Oregon. From there he began working with the Rural Affairs team, promoting animal welfare and working on legislation. He shared with us that 95 percent of HSUS members eats meat, as well as the majority of the staff. He said they encourage their members to be conscious of where they buy their food so they can support local/American farmers. Moreover, as our conversation went down a path of CAFOs and “Factory Farming,” he said the number of head does not matter as much as the conditions the animals are raised in. I can get down with all those things.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there were many items of conversation that I didn’t agree with, but the climate of the conversation was MUCH different than what I was anticipating. There was no hostile stand-off. It was just four people talking about agriculture.
Earlier in the week, we had a discussion about “Crucial Conversations,” which we learned come as a result of opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes. In that session we talked about “restarting your brain” during those difficult moments and ask yourself the following questions: Am I behaving like I want? What results do I really want (for myself, others, for the relationship or organization I’m working with)? Again, I could have really used this insight in 2011.
While I still wary of the intentions of HSUS, I did reflect on the fact that what I thought was going to be a scary or tense conversation just turned out to be four people chatting. Thinking on a larger scale about how polarized our society has become, its no wonder I was waiting for a stand-off. We are surrounded by tense and uncomfortable conversations all the time, even on the topic of agriculture and food choices. I think the more we, in the agriculture industry and as a society, can do active listening and finding those things we have in common with those on the “other team,” the easier it will be to find compromise and wins for everyone. The work we do in agriculture and the impact we make on those around us is worth those crucial conversations.