Animal Ag Engage

Join me on my adventure!

If you had come up to me a few months ago and told me that I was going to drop out of school and move to Washington, D.C. with 15 credits left until graduation, I would have laughed and silently questioned your sanity.300669_2288095074251_640233774_n And yet, here I am – thrilled to be the newest intern at the Animal Agriculture Alliance for this Fall semester! My name is Valerie Downs. I am fortunate enough to be studying public relations at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida (stay tuned to see how well I survive the Northern winter. It’s only September and I am already freezing). Before I became a Floridian, though, I was a Marylander. I spent the vast majority of my life in the Hagerstown area of Western Maryland.  I wish I could tell you that I grew up on a farm and have a beautiful background in agriculture, but unfortunately I do not. All I really have to offer is a passion to learn as much as I can about the industry and an equal desire to share what I have learned with you.

What I Have Been Learning

Although I have only been working at the Alliance for a few short weeks, I have already learned so much. When I dropped all of my classes, one of the things I was most disappointed about was pulling out of my first graphic design class. During my time with the Alliance, though, I have been learning Photoshop.  I have even created graphics that were posted to the Alliance’s social media platforms.  I’ve gotten to sit in on meetings and listen to key members of the animal agriculture industry speak.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am definitely learning more here than I would have learned in the classroom.


Photo From My Grandpa’s Land

Not everything that I’ve learned so far has been quite so academic. Besides discovering the joys of people watching on the metro, I have been developing an even deeper respect for all of those who work in the agriculture industry.

My childhood home was right next door to my grandpa’s little hobby “farm.” He just keeps a few horses and tends to his fields and a relatively sizable garden. During the hottest part of every summer, he’d always recruit my cousins and I to help with hay harvesting.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI remember growing a respect for those who work full-time on farms somewhere between sweating more than I ever have in my life and discovering black snakes hidden in hay bales. One thing that really sticks out to me about those summers is how my grandpa could spend all day throwing heavy hay bales around but still come in the house at night singing his silly made-up songs about lightning bugs or caterpillars with all the cheerfulness of a songbird.  Even though it was hard work, he was always so passionate about what he was doing that it made him and everyone around him glow.

There is a real passion in the animal agriculture industry, and it doesn’t stop on the farm. When I told my friends and family that I had accepted this wonderful opportunity with the Alliance, the ones who have had experience in agriculture all told me the same thing: once you get a taste of working in this industry, you will never want to leave. Several different people told me that those who work in animal agriculture foster a caring workplace environment like no other – so much so that it makes you want to stay there forever.  And I have yet to see anything other than exactly that.

What I Hope to Learn

Looking at everything that I’ve learned so far, I am so excited to continue on my journey with the Alliance. I still have so much left to learn. I’m looking forward to meeting more people and hearing their animal agriculture stories. One of the most important things I hope to take away from this internship is the ability to know how to communicate to everyday consumers about the animal agriculture industry. I look forward to sharing everything that I learn with you.  I hope that even though I do not have a background in animal agriculture, my point of view that comes from looking into the industry as an outsider can be helpful to you.

There are so many stories floating around the Internet and sometimes even the media that are not based in truth. When I was looking at the Alliance before accepting this internship one quote from our President and CEO, Kay Johnson Smith, resonated with me: “Our duty is to be honest, be truthful, and be factual in the representation of the issues we deal with.” The truth is as important to the Alliance as it is to the consumer, and that is exactly the kind of organization from which I want to learn.

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Does “big” mean “bad”?

Thirteen years ago, my family and I gathered in our living room on Sunday evening to watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Thoughts of having to go to school the next day lingered in my head. I knew the show was coming to the end because everyone was cheering “Move That Bus” in anticipation for the family to see their new house. However, their chant was interrupted by a phone call.  I sprinted to the phone. After saying hello in a somewhat spirited voice, my introduction was followed with a worrisome, shaky response. “They called the squad on your grandma. You all need to get to the hospital as soon as possible.”

This phone call was the beginning of my grandmother’s 12-year battle with dialysis. She was rushed to the hospital because her kidneys had failed and needed immediate treatment. Unfortunately, she was too old to get a transplant, but thanks to modern medicine, dialysis provided an avenue for continued treatment that sustained and increased her quality of life.

So what does this have to do with ‘big ag?’ Well, nurses and doctors are able to develop and deliver such treatments in part because American farmers and ranchers are able to produce enough food so other people can pursue careers of their choosing, like medicine. In the 1800s, each farmer grew enough food in a year to feed three to five people. By 1995, each farmer was feeding 128 people per year.

‘Big ag’ works to feed not only the farmers and ranchers but everyone else that is not in the agriculture industry, yet it sometimes gets a bad reputation. Why? What do you think of when you hear the term? Do you think of large farms that mistreat animals? What about thousands of acres covered in soybeans, corn, or other crops? Do you think of an industry so large that it comes across as threatening? When I did an initial Google search of the term, here are a few articles that appeared:

  • Corporate Farming, Wikipedia
  • How Farmers Can Use Data to Push Back Against Big Ag
  • Gagged by Big Ag
  • Big Ag is Rotten

This search helps illustrate the negative connotation associated with the term. But let’s dig a little deeper to help debunk these initial thoughts and opinions to show you that ‘big ag’ doesn’t mean ‘bad ag’.

Size of the industry

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, agriculture and its related industries contributed $789 billion to the U.S. gross domestic production in 2013. That is a lot of money; so yes, agriculture is a big industry. But food is a basic necessity for life, so it would make sense that farming and the processes that follow harvest would make up a significant part of our economy. And it is no secret that our population is increasing. More mouths mean more food so if we need to expand our agricultural production to feed more people, does that mean we are ‘bad’ by using more of our natural resources such as land?  On the contrary, the agricultural industry is using less land to produce more food.

A statement from the Envrionmental Protection Agency says:

“In spite of a growing population and increased demand for agricultural products, the land area under cultivation in this country has not increased. While advanced farming techniques, including irrigation and genetic manipulation of crops, has permitted an expansion of crop production in some areas of the country, there has been a decrease in other areas. In fact, some 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development each day in this country. There was an 8% decline in the number of acres in farms over the last twenty years. In 1990, there were almost 987 million acres in farms in the U.S., that number was reduced to just under 943 million acres by 2000, and then reduced to 914 million acres in 2012.”

Size of farms

In the 1800s, 90 percent of the population lived on farms; today, it is approximately one percent. Because fewer individuals are involved in production agriculture and the population is increasing, it only makes sense that farmers would have to increase their operations. So why would bigger be bad? Some are concerned that bigger farms sacrifice animal welfare. However, this is not the case. Regardless of farm size, farmers and ranchers are still responsible for the care of their animals. The industry has also set in place practices that assist in these areas.

Farming is also a business, which means it needs to yield profits. (I think a lot of times we forget this because while farmers and ranchers consider it a way of life, it also needs to support themselves and their families.) A report from the USDA found that in recent years, 85-95 percent of farm household income has come from off-farm sources (including employment earnings, other business activities, and unearned income.) Would you be willing to get up a 4 a.m. every day of the year (including holidays!) to milk cows or spend 20 hours a day in the field if it only accounted for 15 percent of your household income? Increasing farm size helps contribute to profitability because it makes investments more worthwhile. Does purchasing a new car make you think twice? A new combine can reach up to half a million dollars! Do you even want to think about putting up a new barn?

I’m thankful for ‘big ag’

As I reflect on the term ‘big ag’, I am thankful that farming operations have increased in size and production. It allows individuals to specialize in other areas (such as medicine, engineering and the arts) which all contribute to our quality of life. It has given rise to new technology that aid in our environmental impact. And it has given an opportunity for a profitable future for American farmers and ranchers.

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Social media: more than just a post or tweet

When Facebook debuted I was a freshman in high school and the social media platform was all any one could talk about at the lunch table. Everything revolved around the conversations being held on Facebook. I found it quite annoying and was hoping it was just a fad. I held off joining the Facebook brigade until I was a senior in high school – the only reason I signed up for an account is because my mom insisted I get one since I was moving away for college.

Fast forward nine years and I manage social media for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. I won’t lie –  I still find social media to be annoying some days, but it is such a powerful communication tool that I find it to be more fascinating.

The power of a post

The Bachelor Farmer

The Bachelor Farmer

What’s amazing about social media is how many people one person is able to reach with one post – whether it’s with 140 characters, a graphic, video or blog post like I’m writing now. One person can potentially reach millions of people without leaving the comfort of their desk, couch or favorite coffee shop.  This can give someone a megaphone to get their message heard who may not have a voice otherwise.

In regards to agriculture, social media provides an outlet for producers, farmers and ranchers to share what they are most passionate about – providing a safe and affordable food supply for our great nation.

By managing the day-to-day social media at the Alliance, one of my favorite things to see, and hope to see every time I post, is engagement from not only consumers who are curious about modern agriculture, but having our posts provide an outlet for farmers and producers to chime in and either answer questions or share what they do on their farm. From what I can see, consumers generally appreciate when their questions are answered by farmers and this helps build on the trust that most people already have in America’s food supply.

Personally, my favorite platforms are Twitter and Snapchat. Some may argue that Snapchat isn’t a true social media platform, but it allows users to share a message like all the other platforms and I’d like to applaud them for one of their recent messages or “stories” as they are called. Snapchat is all about sharing quick photos or videos with your friends or followers. The trick is that the content disappears after just a few seconds. The platform sometimes features “stories” that combine posts from users at the same event, in the same place or with a theme in common.

IMG_0737Farm Life Snaps

A week or so ago, Snapchat put out a story titled “Farm Life” and it was awesome to say the least. The stories included farmers from across the country sharing a few seconds of their day. My favorite was the video of the cow giving birth – why? Imagine how many people have actually seen a cow give birth – not many I’d argue, but thanks to Snapchat they were able to see it whether they wanted to or not.

This story allowed people removed from agriculture to see just a few things that American farmers do every day to keep food on our plates.

In case you missed the snaps, I’ve included some screenshots throughout this blog post. The farmer from the last season of The Bachelor even made an appearance! The only part I didn’t like was when it all disappeared, but hey that’s Snapchat for you, right?

More than just a post, tweet…or snap!

If you’re not active on social media because you find it annoying or don’t want to listen to people complain, I understand (really I do), but there is so much more to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Snapchat than just a post. Social media gives everyone a voice, but also an avenue to connect with people and ideas that he/she may not be introduced to otherwise. It is important that the agriculture community is one of the voices being heard.IMG_0738

We all know that the opposite side has a big voice and is more than happy to share their version of agriculture’s story so we need to be out there reaching the consumers and media that want a truthful, factual answer about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

There are organizations, such as Farm Bureaus, checkoff organizations and even the Alliance that work to spread factual information and engage with the media and consumer groups about agriculture, but hearing from the individual farm families that are on the farm every day is what leaves a lasting impression on the public in my opinion.

If you’re just starting out on social media and could use a few pointers or would like to strategize on how you can be the best advocate, reference the Alliance’s social media guide which outlines all the major platforms and what types of messages are ideal for each.

Oh and Snapchat, feel free to do more “farm life” snaps!



Should we use animals to save human lives?

I missed my father’s birthday last week. No gift, no card, no call; I forgot. I remembered the next day and gave him a call. I figured I could wish him a happy birthday in a public way to help make up for it. He’s not on Facebook so here it is: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD! I’m especially grateful he was able to spend his birthday enjoying the northern New York sunshine and perfect temperatures – because last year he spent it recovering from heart surgery.

Sadly, animal rights activists would rather he wasn’t able to celebrate any more birthdays than have a lifesaving procedure to transplant a healthy valve made from bovine tissue in his heart to replace the one that was failing him. Although animal rights activists may engage in what looks like animal welfare advocacy from time to time, their true goal is total animal liberation. If they ever succeed, this would mean no more pets, zoos, animals used for food and clothing, and animals used for research that could lead to life-saving medicines and procedures for humans.

My dad is healthy today and living a normal life because of advances in science, technology, medicine and the use of animals in medicine.allyson and dad

Should we use animals to save human lives? I’m not talking about the big picture, philosophical debate. I’m talking about standing next to a loved one’s bedside in the hospital room and wondering if you’ll see them tomorrow, if they’ll get to celebrate another birthday, if he’ll be there to walk me down the aisle. In those moments, the only answer is yes. Yes, we should use animals. I have a hard time imagining that anyone who has experienced this feeling would advocate against using animals to save human lives.

There were options to not use animal tissue to mend him; however, doctors discussed the complications and risks associated with those options. Using bovine tissue was the best option for my dad. It’s possible the medical community would not have been able to develop these other options without studying and researching using animals. Animals have been helping improve research and medicine for ages. Research on dogs and cattle in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to understanding insulin and treating diabetes, which was a deadly disease at the time.

Currently, there is a shortage of human organs donated to those who need transplants. According to the U.S. Government Information on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation, an average of 22 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. That is not acceptable. Scientists are working every day to discover solutions to this problem. If you or a loved one are depending on this research, the only option is for scientists to use all available resources to find solutions, including using animals.

It’s important for me to note that I also believe animals should receive best care possible throughout their life. I care that animals are raised in comfortable conditions, are free from pain and suffering, are provided quality nutrition and are treated for illness. Every farmer, rancher and researcher that I’ve met has shared these feelings on animal care. I know those I’ve worked with are doing their best every day to give their animals the best.

I’m thankful for modern medicine, just as I’m thankful for modern agriculture. We are better off today because we have both.