Animal Ag Engage

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Food labels: helpful or hectic?

So many choices for one type of product!

So many choices for one product!

During my last trip to Costco I discovered a new hobby: reading egg carton labels. Now, before you call me a weird person without a life, let me explain.

Animal Rights and Animal Agriculture

Since I’ve started my internship at the Alliance, I have become a lot more conscious of animal rights groups and how they affect the food industry and the perception that the average consumer has about the animal agriculture industry.

Now that I devote my time to learning everything I can about agriculture and being immersed in the field, I am able to stay in tune with current issues and campaigns that animal rights groups are stirring up and how they are affecting farmers and ranchers.  I finally get to put my expensive college education to use and do what I love – share my knowledge and opinions with people who may not be as familiar with agriculture and therefore, are more susceptible to the activist campaigns that clutter the media.

Egg Labels

Alright, so back to my new-found hobby. I was in Costco with my mom last month and she asked me to go get some eggs. Easy enough, right? I went back to the refrigerated room and stood there

Labeled from free-range hens.

Labeled from free-range hens.

looking at all my choices. I was honestly looking for the cheapest deal, but I couldn’t help but notice how cluttered all the egg cartons looked. Egg cartons used to say just that, eggs. Now you’re seeing words like cage free, organic, humanely raised, farm fresh, free range, hormone free and from vegetarian fed hens. But what does all that mean to the shopper?

All these words could mean nothing or everything. If the shopper sees that 9 out of 10 egg brands have “hormone free” on the label, they’re going to naturally think that the 10th brand has hormones. What the average consumer might not know is that all eggs are hormone free. It is illegal to inject laying hens with hormones in the United States. So how can you blame the consumer of thinking that hormone free is desirable when it is being marketed as such?

Helpful or Hectic?

A crowded label with a lot of information.

A crowded label with a lot of information.

In many cases, the overuse of labeling can cause confusion and help spread misinformation about a product. The change in labeling began as a marketing tactic for companies to differentiate their product from the rest to boost sales, but if all eggs start to have similar labels what is making them different from their competitors? I’m amazed at how many things are crammed onto the package and it makes me question what they are going to add next.

I walked back to the shopping cart and told my mom that one carton had “from vegetarian fed hens” on the label and she started to laugh. Then she asked me if those were hormone free as well. I looked at her and cracked a big smile.

Teachable Moment

Earlier that day the Alliance had focused on eggs and hormones during Trivia Tuesday and now I was presented with the perfect opportunity to put my knowledge to use outside of the office. I was ecstatic to say the least.

Then I got to thinking, what if another shopper was curious about hormones but didn’t know who to ask? I mean, what good are labels if the target audience doesn’t know what half the words even mean? My guess is if they were curious enough they would do a Google search. The problem is, the first two results are from The Humane Society of the United States, and with their vegan agenda their articles have an obvious bias about animal agriculture.

My advice to shoppers who have questions about their food supply is to ask someone who has devoted their life to farming and taking care of their animals. Remember that farmers and industry leaders are people too and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss their passion for agriculture with you!

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Activist Framing at Its ‘Best’: Analyzing Activist Communications

Two weeks ago, I posted my first blog for the Alliance. My previous post focused on the idea that agricultural communication IS political communication and activist groups are currently doing a much better job than agriculturalists at communicating to the general public. I also talked about the concept of framing. Communication of all types, especially agricultural communication, is expressed to the public through framing, which refers to when a particular fact or information is taken and portrayed in a certain way to influence others and project a certain reality.

Among the most notable examples of activist opposition framing that I’ve seen is a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) advertisement that shows pigs that HSUS claim to be “trapped in cages for their entire lives without the ability to move”.

HSUS bus advertisement on gestation crates

HSUS bus advertisement on gestation crates

What this picture ACTUALLY depicts are gestation crates, where pigs and piglets are kept in a protected environment to keep the piglets from being injured or killed by  members of their own species. Farmers, like me, know that pigs by nature can be naturally aggressive. However, the average person that likes his eggs served with bacon thinks of pigs like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Groups like the HSUS play on the average person’s perception and frame their version of reality based off this unfamiliarity with modern agriculture . In this, groups like the HSUS successfully frame their issues and, in this example the frame is the “Attack on Big Pork.”

In this campaign, the advertisement contains no numbers or statistics, but rather a surge of dramatic imagery and rhetoric in one sentence: “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in a space as small as a bus seat?” This provocative advertisement elicits unsettling and angry emotions for people taking the advertisement at face value and accepting it as reality.

Here, the HSUS has framed American pork production as a savage practice where animals are mistreated to satisfy the greed of the American factory farmer. This is only one of many examples, but it certainly is one of the more powerful activist messages being cast upon the public. If a massive advertisement on the side of a bus used for public transportation is not enough to convince you that the activists mean business, I don’t know what is.

So… what SHOULD we do to improve our communications strategies?

Get ourselves off of the defensive: It is tempting to want to respond to every negative piece of media attention. It’s certainly frustrating to see how so many people respond so easily in favor of activist messages when what they are portraying are not glimpses into reality. On a personal level, it angers me that so many people attack the very farmers who produce the food they put on their tables every day. That being said, no matter how cohesive the response to negative activist materials, always being in the position of responding makes you appear to be on the defensive. Being on the defensive paints a picture of guilt, where being on the offensive is attributed to being passionate and devoted to educating the public about the truth.

Humane Watch graphic exposing HSUS's spending

Humane Watch graphic exposing HSUS’s spending

The best example of the industry being on the offensive I have seen recently comes from Humane Watch. In their visually appealing graphic, which my fellow intern Casey wrote about in a recent post. Humane Watch sheds light on the truth behind HSUS’s spending practices. This graphic does an excellent job of putting HSUS on the defensive. With net assets exceeding $187.5 million dollars according to their public 2014 tax return, you would think the “world’s best animal protection organization” would shell out a lot more money to help animals in the 50 states. In this, the numbers don’t lie, but it’s pretty clear who does. As a collection of livestock industries we need to continue to present ourselves proactively on the issues that are important to us. By not waiting to respond to blatant lies and misrepresentations of our industries, we will garner a much better image with the public.

A HSUS holiday card from 'Wilbur'

A HSUS holiday card from ‘Wilbur’

***As a fun side note- when writing this post I came up with the Charlotte’s Web reference on my own. It was only a few days later while searching for something entirely different that I came across the HSUS holiday card! ***

(Editor’s note: When published, this blog contained an erroneous explanation about how gestation crates are used. We’ve corrected the post, and encourage you to visit this site to learn more:



Veterans farming for a better tomorrow

When a farmer wants to tell his story, you listen (and take notes if you’re a communications intern). David Gevry recently contacted the Alliance about wanting to share what he’s been up to on his farm and I was thrilled. My favorite assignments in college always happened out of the classroom when I was able to meet new people, learn their story and turn it into something publishable and worth reading.

I enjoy writing news articles, blogs or feature stories that shine light on people and places that are doing something positive for themselves and their community. Make that person a farmer and that place a farm and I’ll write a book for you!

Vet2Farm logo

Although I wasn’t able to meet Gevry in person, I can tell he is a farmer worth writing about. If his name sounds familiar it’s probably because we were talking about him on this blog last October.

After returning home from combat deployment in 2011, Gevry found farming to be therapeutic, so he started farming as a hobby. Four years later and that hobby has turned into something great.

Gevry co-founded Vets2Farm, a 15-acre farm in Little Falls, New York, which helps disabled veterans to heal from the trauma of war and give back to their community through farming.

In 2014, Vets2Farm was on Kickstarter, but didn’t receive enough donations to reach its goal of $5,000.  This was only a minor setback for Gevry. Since our last post, he has received two different land-lease donations. One is being used for a crop operation while the other is helping to begin a pork operation. They will continue to use their previous land-lease donation for poultry.

Two of Gevry's pigs he received this week.

Two of Gevry’s pigs he received this week.

“We have purchased pigs, chickens and loads of seeds,” Gevry said. “We plan to begin marketing our veteran-grown products at the numerous local farmers markets to help achieve sustainability.”

Like all farmers across the country, Gevry has had to battle the snow while tending to his crops and livestock, which he described as “no easy feat.”

While a lot of people may have enjoyed having some relaxing snow days out of the office, farmers don’t have the luxury of dropping everything to build a snowman and drink hot chocolate. Farmers work everyday, rain or shine, to ensure quality food is being produced for consumers across the country and even the world.

In addition to working in the field, Gevry is thinking about the financial future of his farm and has filed for 501(c)(3) status. “We have also been working with grant writers on developing grants that will work on consolidating efforts to reduce expenses and to be able to increase our ability to provide more for our veterans,” he said. “There is so much more to come in the near future for this project.”

Vets2Farm follows all-organic practices, but it’s important to remember that there is room for diversity in the agriculture industry. There is room for organic and conventional farming and one is not better than the other, but they are just different ways of farming. Consumer choice is a privilege that not everyone has, but Americans are lucky to have.

From small to large farms and from beginning farmers to men and women who have been farming for generations, they are all working hard to provide food for their family, friends and the growing population.

From the farms I’ve visited and all the farmers I have met, I have come to admire the quote “…everyday, three times a day, you need a farmer,” and from what I have read about Vets2Farm, I think Gevry is another example of the quote ringing true.

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“Agvocation” Defined: A Political Junkie’s Perspective on the Future of Agricultural Social Media.

My steer Dio and me after a big showmanship win in October 2014!

My steer Dio and me after a big showmanship win in October 2014!

Before I get into the nerdy stuff, let me introduce myself. My name is Jennifer Weinberg and I am studying Political Communication at The George Washington University. My family and I own a small beef cattle operation in Central New Jersey and have been members of both the feedlot and show cattle industries since the early 2000’s. I came to DC knowing that I would find a way to fuse my drives for the law, politics and agriculture into a solid undergraduate experience. That’s how I landed myself at the Animal Agriculture Alliance.

My degree in Political Communication is helpful in analyzing agricultural marketing and social media. Long story short: anti-industry, activists, opposition groups- whatever you call them- are doing a much better communicating than us. I am NOT saying that what they are communicating is in any way representative of American agriculture. What I am saying is that the opposition groups have done a much better job transforming our practices into their versions of reality and proposing it as truth than we have at showing and explaining our practices to consumers.

The key ideas:

  1. Specific arguments/sides are marketed through frames.  As described by Dr. Robert Entman, one of the chief scholars in the Political Communications field, frames are the lenses of how communicators present the information about ideas. Like the way photographers manipulate lighting to take professional pictures, successful communicators in any field bend the light in ways most favorable to their cause. This leads us to our second term: constructed realities.

Frames have 4 central goals/ steps:

  1. Problem definition: (bringing attention to an issue/ threat)
  2. Causal Analysis: (who/ what is responsible for the problem)
  3. Moral Judgment: (how people should feel about the issue)
  4. Remedy Solution: (what should be done to fix the problem/ end the threat)
  1. Constructed Reality:  The four steps of framing create the overall perception of truth on a certain topic. There is no condition that demands a constructed reality has to be truth as that up to individual opinions. In sum, constructed realities are comprised of a collection of arguments that are presented (framed) in certain ways.

The constructed reality being created by activist groups about American agriculture is that food comes from large factory farms that mistreat animals and simply pump products out like on a conveyor belt leaving animals in pain and fear. They do it by framing ideas such as animal welfare by selecting a few images, misrepresenting them (through strategic frames) and claiming them as truths (constructed realities).

  1. The Role Emotion Plays in Successful Communication. In his book, The Political Brain, Drew Westen has one central point: average Americans do not care about facts, figures and statistics when formingdecisions. Instead, they care about how they feel towards a particular issue. Opposition groups use emotional images in their advertisements, and people are attentive to them. Ultimately this emotional-appeal strategy has given opposition groups a huge edge over the agriculture industries who are left trying to use numbers and statistics to defend themselves.

If we want to become better agricultural communicators we need to start by acknowledging the terms of how successful communication is transferred to the public. By using the fundamentals of political communication, I think we can all become better communicators on every platform.