David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Sustainability is The First to Go” (May 2), featured the chief executive of New York-based Package Free explaining why she’s putting her personal values on hold during the pandemic. “When the reality of Covid-19 set in, I made some choices that went against the way I have lived my whole life,” she wrote. “I bought items in plastic. Lots of them.”
She’s not alone. Many businesses both large and small are reevaluating the corporate responsibility programs they once touted on the covers of annual reports. Starbucks no longer fills refillable cups. General Motors eliminated their ride-sharing program. Municipalities are urging those with essential jobs to use their personal cars rather than public transport. Even California blinked, lifting the ban on single-use plastic bags – an act that would have been viewed as environmental heresy before the pandemic hit.
The crisis has also muted many of the voices once aimed at agricultural entities. Restaurant chains that used “hidden camera footage” to highlight poultry abuse in their national ads are scrambling to stay afloat with curbside pickup and drive-through services. Even if their sales return to pre-Covid levels it’s doubtful they’ll have the luxury to bash “factory farms” to a consumer base that remembers scrambling to find fresh eggs in supermarkets.
Environmental influencers and celebrities who used their considerable online clout to rage against U.S. meatpacking plants are also strangely quiet now that beef production is plummeting. Wendy’s is limiting menu items that include fresh beef; ten percent of their stores have removed beef from the menu entirely, a sad twist on the company’s popular “Where’s the Beef” ad campaign from the 1980s. Not only have the calls to close meatpacking plants foundered, President Trump issued an executive order allowing them to stay open. And with real unemployment likely to hit 15 percent – the highest level since 1940 – it’s likely that fewer consumers will be willing to shell out $15 per pound for “synthetic beef” at Whole Foods.
Much of this scenario involves supply and demand issues. Dairy farmers are pouring milk down the drain because there’s nowhere to go with it. On a recent trip to a major national grocery store to purchase milk, the shelves in the dairy department were completely empty. There wasn’t a gallon – or even a quart – of milk to be had. Later that evening, I saw on the news that 10,000 gallons of milk had been handed out by local food banks that day. So that’s where the milk was! Welcome to the new normal, as the media likes to say.
With all this in mind, it’s tempting for those of us who work with farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals to saddle up our high horses and ride through Silicon Valley waving a burger in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. But perhaps this is the ideal time to take the high road and offer a symbolic hand rather than a middle finger to those who have made it their mission to discount or abuse our farmer friends, neighbors, clients and customers. So I’m adding a new rule to the list of steps I’m following during this crisis: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, maintain social distance … and don’t gloat. Instead, I suggest we double our efforts on social media to highlight the critical role that farmers play in ensuring that we have a safe and inexpensive food supply in this country, not just in times of peril, but every day.
Tell stories about farmers. A recent article by Rooster’s chief agronomist explained the horrific effect this crisis is having on farmers. Non-farm audiences need to hear this story as well, particularly as the nation debates the logistics of opening up the economy. Farmers and others in rural areas haven’t experienced the infection levels seen in metropolitan areas – or, in many cases, the stifling regulations – but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to the crisis. All farms have seen their markets disappear as schools and restaurants closed, and many are on the verge of bankruptcy. Farmers aren’t just “feeling the pain” in an empathetic way. It’s real. It’s frightening. And the non-farm public needs to know how serious this is.
And even when things return to normal – whatever that looks like 6 months or years from now – we need to continue efforts to dispel the pervasive myths that surround agriculture. (For a list of specific arguments, check out this article). Activist voices may have been quieted by the pandemic, but they’ll be back screaming about animal abuse, the evils of “Frankenfoods,” and nitrates poisoning our water supply. The general public needs to hear that our ranchers are only as successful as their livestock are healthy, that GMOs help farmers safely grow more food on less land with fewer inputs, and how new technology continues to reduce the environmental impact of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. We have science on our side. We shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
Nurses are heroes. Supermarket clerks are heroes. And so are meatpacking employees. On April 26 John Tyson, head of Tyson Foods, took out full-page ads in national newspapers to warn consumers that a “vulnerable food-supply chain is breaking.” More than a quarter of hog-slaughtering facilities had shuttered, beef production dropped 35 percent as plants closed, and Tyson was closing its facilities throughout the Midwest. The White House, facing reports that up to 80 percent of America’s meat-processing capacity might shut down at least temporarily, responded quickly with a Presidential Order under the Defense Production Act declaring that meatpacking plants are a critical infrastructure and urging them to remain open. This is significant. Each year American farmers produce 50 million tons of beef, pork, turkey, and chicken. The workers who prepare this awesome bounty for U.S. stores and restaurants toil side-by-side in close quarters breathing air re-circulated by refrigeration systems. Social distancing is next to impossible. If the country wants to continue to find safe and inexpensive meat in the display cases at supermarkets, it will be because these workers are taking on considerably more risk by showing up to work every day. If you have meatpacking clients or plants in your area of influence, tell the stories of these heroes. Until recently, the only time Americans hear about these workers is as part of the immigration debate And, because many of these heroes are not naturalized U.S. citizens, the pandemic might actually lead to a bipartisan immigration strategy that is sane, safe, and legal. But that’s not the story, at least not now. These men and women are taking on inordinate risks to ensure that average Americans can put food on their tables. That’s a story that we need to tell.
Support pro-farm lobbying efforts to open markets. As restaurants and schools closed, demand for meat and dairy products evaporated. Production, however, remained high. This forced many farmers and ranchers to destroy their stocks rather than sell them at a loss – if they could sell them at all. At the same time, more than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last month alone, and many have or will experience food insecurity. Food banks can’t keep up; one report suggested a 100-percent increase in need, which equates to $1.4 billion in additional resources. At present, there’s no domestic agricultural policy that connects the dots between this surplus of available food and the food banks and charitable organizations that are struggling to supply hungry citizens. The American Farm Bureau, in conjunction with Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, is advocating a plan to cut red tape and create a voucher program to tie farmers and food banks together without having to go through a third party. If this just seems to make sense, well, it does. And it’s a story we need to tell.
The agricultural industry will always have its opponents, critics, doubters, cranks, and conspiracy theorists. These voices were there before the pandemic, and they’ll likely return when we finally put this particular crisis in the rear view mirror. But the crisis has given us a chance to highlight the importance of agriculture and our farmers, ranchers, and other agribusiness professionals as they struggle every day to maintain the safe and inexpensive food supply that many of us take for granted. It would be a real shame to let this crisis go to waste.
David Vincent has spent 45 years working with blue-chip agricultural companies and agencies in Memphis, New York City, Connecticut, Milwaukee and St. Louis, among other locations. He is currently based in Nashville, Tenn.