Most consumers know nothing of what farmers do but they have strong opinions about farming and animal care nonetheless.
The rise of animal activism is proof of that.
However, we all farm somewhere on the animal care spectrum, says Bruce Kelly, the Program Manager at Farm and Food Care.
“Do you eat shrimp? Do you think about their death?” asked Kelly of the attendees at the BDO Agriculture Roadshow held in Clinton this winter. “Probably not. But you might be the kind of person who lets the pet dog sleep on your bed.”
Animal death is a huge issue in consumer’s minds. They have no real concept of death on a farm.
A farmer might think, “I am doing a good job” when his flock’s mortality is under three per cent compared to the average of five per cent. However, there is a whole group of consumers who are saying one dead chicken is too many. “Farmer, you are NOT doing a good job and something has to change.”
Recognizing the extremes is part of Kelly’s job as is encouraging farmers to listen, understand and react appropriately when it comes to animals rights activists.
The first step is to realize animalsrights activists really, truly believe that animal rights equal civil rights equal the end of slavery.
“They are very committed. They believe their message to the core,” said Kelly.
Armed with their absolute beliefs, they are compelled to bring their message to government officials, food industry executives, media, academic institutions and everyone else.
They are also clever. Realizing that shock value is losing its power, animal rights activists are now veering towards coaching others.
“Check out Mercy for Animals on Facebook. You won’t find blood or meat on trays. Instead, they are offering to help you toward a new healthy lifestyle,” said Kelly. Tactics are changing.
However, animal rights groups are still as aggressive.
As he follows the methods of animal rights activists, he discovered three help wanted ads. One was a job opening for a campaigner solely to target Swiss Chalet. The job description included distributing leaflets and door hangers near Swiss Chalet restaurants, to share education footage of cruelty toward broiler chickens with consumers and to coordinate volunteer schedules and locations of leafleteers across the country. The position required two to four years of communications experience, preferably in a corporate setting.
Another job description was for an Undercover Investigator for Canada. The job’s objective: “To obtain employment at factory farms and slaughterhouses in order to document conditions. Investigators must be prepared to witness ‘unimaginable’ cruelty and engage in intense physical labour while maintaining composure and cover to gather information necessary to expose and stop farmed-animal abuse.”
These are real job postings at the Mercy for Animals website.
You can also find listings of all the activist events the group is planning for the year. There is a protest happening almost every day.
So what can farmers do?
The most important thing farmers can do is the “right thing,” said Kelly. “Assume you are on television, look around and ask yourself if your barn is ready.”
Larger farmers tend to have trained staff and documentation supporting their actions. However, staff aren’t alway as connected to the farm animals or the farm image. It’s important to remind employees that society is watching and they have a responsibility to society to deal with mortalities in a respectful way.
When a farm has an emergency such as a barn fire, Kelly immediately sends out a fact sheet on how to deal with animal rights activists because, undoubtedly, they will be at the farm the next day.
At a barn fire, it’s important to set up boundaries. “Don’t give them anything to show.” He said the biggest challenge at farm fires is the friendly neighbour who stops to help and ends up chatting with a protestor.
Other suggestions on the fact sheet include:
• Call local police to let them know about the protest
• Designate one person to speak with police on site
• Speak to police about a “no fly” zone for drones
• Any interaction will be filmed. Stay professional at all times. This cannot be stressed enough.
• Don’t stage a counter protest.
• Do not post any information about barn fires or the like on social media
When it comes to protests at meetings, Kelly said protestors could come marching in. Or, they could be sitting at a table and suddenly pull out banners and start speaking.
“They know they have about three minutes before police can be called,” said Kelly. He advises giving them the three minutes, let them take their photo and escort them off the premise.
“Don’t let them ruin your meeting and whatever you do, do not engage,” advised Kelly. “They have their lines. Don’t engage with a protestor because they will make you look like a putz.”
Farm and Food Care has a helpline service as well and staff investigate about two calls per week.
“We work with commodity groups to investigate legitimate concerns about animal abuse before the callers go to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA)”, said Kelly. They are good folks at OSPCA, believes Kelly. They receive thousands of calls of which only nine per cent of calls are farm situations. Of these, half concern horses.
“When freezing rain starts, we’ll get calls from people who see horses standing outside,” explains Kelly. “We’ll talk them down and assure them that horses and cows can be outside during freezing rain and most certainly have access to a barn. They just aren’t choosing to go into it.”
Sometimes neighbours or in-laws will call in situations such as an older farmer who always kept 50 cattle. But now it’s winter and he’s finding it harder to get around. So he’ll get a visit and it will be suggested to him that it’s probably time for him to hang up his spurs.
Farm and Food Care gives commodity groups 48 hours to deal with any animal care issues within their domain. If it’s not taken care of, then Farm and Food Care will report to the OSPCA.
Kelly was asked if the farming community is making headway getting the real story of farming out to consumers.
He said he has hope but it’s a struggle with the growing number of intelligently-presented animals rights organizations.
What has helped is the public’s push back against fake news.
For sure, what would help, is to reduce any infighting between specialized and conventional food producers.
“Specialized food producers do not need to throw conventional producers under the bus to promote their products,” said Kelly. ◊