May 3 2017 08:45 AM

Prepare yourself before diving into online conversations about agriculture.

Social media has almost become a bit of a necessary evil these days. We use it to keep in touch with friends and family, to ask advice, to buy and sell things, and to entertain each other and share our opinions. For most millennials, it is hard to remember LBFB (Life Before Facebook).

Most of us have come across an article or a meme online that is intended to portray our beloved dairy industry in a bad light. While we know that these articles share bogus “information” and garner “facts” from biased sources, we still let this propaganda hurt us. We often fire back in a moment of rage and tell the posters that they don’t have a clue about agriculture.

Before we know it, we are sucked into a debate that we are completely unprepared for and don’t have the time or the information to finish properly. At times like this, we need to ask ourselves if we have done our industry a service or merely caused ourselves unnecessary stress?

I have seen so many of these situations on Facebook, where a farmer steps in trying to teach someone why the information they are sharing about dairy is incorrect and instead ends up sounding defensive. They eventually leave the conversation in frustration, letting the other party feel that they have “won.” The truth is, it is sometimes hard to be a good advocate for agriculture. We all feel obligated to do it (as we should), but it isn’t always easy. Without putting a little thought into every response and every post, we can often do more damage than good.

For those who would like to be good dairy industry advocates, I would like to offer a few tips.

First, do not share posts made by PETA, HSUS, Mercy for Animals, or any other animal rights group. Any post that is made to adamantly discourage people from consuming dairy is a post that we would prefer people not to see. When we share these posts, all it does is spread them to a wider audience, directly defying our goal.

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. What I mean by this, is don’t solely rely on your own experience to answer questions about agriculture. Those who are against animal agriculture will be armed with everything from sad stories about calves ripped from their mothers to fake science-based myths about how dangerous dairy is for our bodies. In many cases, our own expertise is enough, but when the manure starts to be slung, we need facts to back us up.

Use your resources. This is something that I tell my students all the time, and it applies to advocacy as well. When you feel that you need “back up” in a conversation (or public debate) with an activist, you need resources. Using scientific articles is a great tool if you can find them, and calling on some ag industry professionals or other farmers to help you out is usually a wise decision.

Build an arsenal of information. If you want to be an effective advocate, it is a very good idea to have a wide array of information saved somewhere for easy access. Let’s say you happen to check your Facebook while you are waiting for that slow cow to milkout and you see something that you feel the need to respond to. You can quickly post your comment and include an informative link and finish your chores in a timely manner.

Watch your language. This is a big one for me. Nothing irritates me more than seeing a well-meaning farmer trying to advocate for the industry they love and misspelling every word in the post. I know that perfect spelling and grammar is not a necessity on the internet these days. However, to make the best attempt to get our point across and appear as an expert in our field, we should take the time to present our information in a way that it can be easily understood.

Along those same lines, while we may have an array of cuss words in our minds that we would like to use in these situations, it is best to be as respectful as possible and omit the swear words. Even when the other side calls us names and tries to publicly harass us for our decision to farm, we need to keep our cool and be the better person.

A picture is worth a thousand words. It is a great idea to show the public our lives as dairy farmers, but not everything should be shared. We need to use our common sense in this area. If you question whether your photo shows your dairy in a positive light, ask an honest friend for their opinion or just don’t post it.

As far as your photos of cows grazing or your happy cows lying in deep-bedded freestalls, keep posting them! Pictures do a great job of making consumers feel connected to their food.

Lastly, remember who our real audience is. We must keep in mind that although our “beef” is with those who want to end animal agriculture, they are not our target audience. These people will not have their minds changed, in most cases, no matter how persuasive we are. The people that we are trying to connect to and inform are the ones who are on the fence about animal ag. Professionals call these people the “movable middle,” because they do not have concrete views and can be swayed either by us or by the animal rights groups.

The bottom line is that we should keep working hard to tell our story and be positive advocates for agriculture!

The author is a freelance writer from New Hope, Va.

Mike Hutjens

Join us for our next webinar on May 8, 2017:

“On-farm feed diagnostics"
Hosted by Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois
Cows are “talking” to us every day, but are we listening? This webinar will explore measurements that can improve profits, milk yield, feed digestion, health, and reproductive performance. Physically effective fiber, starch utilization, protein capture, and feed processing will all be covered in this fast moving webinar. The webinar is sponsored by Ajinomoto Heartland.