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May 22, 2008   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
May 22, 2008

Colleen Church McDowall of Osborn & Barr Communications, right, critiques mock interviews with Ag Challenges Initiative participants from Alabama. From left are, front row, Jennifer Cruise of Morgan County, Delle Bean of Calhoun County, Martha Jordan of Monroe County and Annie Dee of Pickens County; back row, Jeff Maze of Blount County and Alabama Farmers Federation Dairy, Pork and Poultry Director Guy Hall.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Farmers from Alabama and Tennessee had a chance to hear what average citizens think about agriculture and practice telling their stories to the media during a training session May 20-21 in Huntsville.

Seventeen farmers from the two states gathered in the Rocket City for the workshop, which is part of a national campaign called Ag Challenges Initiative coordinated by the American Farm Bureau Federation. The program is meant to address public concerns about animal welfare issues through research, spokesperson training and outreach.

Lamar County dairy farmer Will Gilmer said the training made him more aware of the need for farmers to talk about what they do to protect the health of their livestock so consumers can enjoy a safe, wholesome product.

"It helped us realize how much we need to educate the general public," said Gilmer, who serves as state Young Farmers chairman for the Alabama Farmers Federation, a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "It made me realize how much of a disconnect there is between many consumers and today's agricultural practices. It really drives home our need to get out there and educate the public."

Other Alabama participants included Federation State Women's Committee Chairman Delle Bean of Calhoun County, Jennifer Cruise of Morgan County, Annie Dee of Pickens County, Dorman Grace of Walker County, Martha Jordan of Monroe County, Clay Kennamer of Jackson County, Bill Lipscomb of Autauga County and Jeff Maze of Blount County. The group included poultry, beef cattle, horse and dairy cattle producers.

The two-day training included an overview of public opinion research conducted by Osborn & Barr Communications for the Farm Bureau as well as mock television and radio interviews. The highlight for the participants, however, was a chance to hear local residents discuss animal agriculture issues in a focus group setting.

"We take for granted the high level of care we provide our animals because we are on the farm 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but the average person on the street doesn't understand what we do," Jordan said.

Research conducted as part of the Ag Challenges Initiative shows most consumers trust farmers to raise healthy animals and food, but many also have been influenced by negative campaigns waged by well-funded activist groups. When farmers counter outrageous claims with real-life stories about how they care for their animals, however, most consumers find farmers to be credible sources of information. The Ag Challenges Initiative is aimed at equipping farmers to be self-advocates by providing training, resources and opportunities to share their message.

"I had no idea I could get my message across without sounding businesslike," Cruise said. "I learned that I can be more effective when I share how our family cares for our animals on a day-to-day basis. If we can get more farmers involved who are confident in sharing their stories, I think we will have a bigger impact in making a positive change for agriculture."

During the training, the participants also heard from Chris Chinn, former chairman of the AFBF Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee. Chinn, an independent hog farmer from Missouri, said she was motivated to begin sharing her story when misinformation and a lack of understanding about agriculture threatened the future of her family farm.

Chinn began speaking to civic clubs, writing letters to the editor and posting blogs about the extensive measures her family takes to ensure the safety, health and well-being of their animals. She challenged the Ag Challenges Initiative participants to search for opportunities to share their stories, whether in the media, through public speaking or by simply visiting one-on-one with consumers.

"People out there know very little about what we actually do on the farm," Lipscomb said. "I learned that I can take control of that situation and be a spokesperson for my industry."

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