To gain support, look at issues through the public’s eyes

By Vicky Boyd

Editor

When faced with controversial issues, such as pesticide drift or foodborne illness, agricultural spokesmen may state the facts but still not register with the media and urban populace.

To help sway the public, experts recommend that growers and other agricultural representatives admit past mistakes and be adamant about how they will correct them.

“Often they don’t make agriculture look in the best light, and they certainly don’t promote sympathy to the ag industry,” says Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, a public relations group based in Watsonville, Calif. “We need to be expressing our care and concern and what we can do to prevent these things from happening again. We have to communicate that these types of [mistakes] are unacceptable.”

Dale Nicol, a pest control adviser in Kern County, Calif., and president of the Kern County chapter of the California Association of Pest Control Advisers, has learned from experience.

During the past few years, Kern County newspaper headlines had blasted farmers for a handful of cases where pesticides drifted onto nearby farm workers.

Nicol says PCAs and farmers used to respond to the media by throwing out statistics showing how safe pesticide applications were. The message fell on deaf ears.

Faced with the possibility of additional pesticide application regulations about two years ago, a group of Kern County growers, PCAs, farm labor contractors and applicators—in conjunction with the Kern County agriculture commissioner—formed the Kern County Spray Drift Task Force.

One component is the voluntary Spray Safe program, which is designed to increase communication among farm workers, growers and pesticide applicators. The goal is to ensure workers aren’t in nearby fields when applications are made.

The program also involves grower and applicator educational sessions and a checklist to remind them about the products applied, re-entry restrictions, wind patterns and communication with applicators.

Acknowledge past mistakes

Nicol says the Spray Safe group also worked with the Alliance for Food and Farming to improve relations with the public. “Marilyn [Dolan] helped us understand that we need to look at the issue through the eyes of the public,” he says. “You must acknowledge that there have been mistakes, and that this isn’t acceptable. If you don’t acknowledge it up front, the people we are talking to shut down and don’t listen.”

Edwin Camp, a diversified fruit and vegetable grower in Kern County has received media training through the California Agricultural Leadership Program, Western Growers Association and the alliance.

The more he deals with the press, the more comfortable Camp says he’s become.

“Most of us as farmers want to run from the media, but it’s important to be able to face them and get your message across,” Camp says. “Know your facts, and just speak from the heart.”

He used that philosophy during the past year as one of the growers involved with the Spray Safe program.

“I think part of the message is really being honest about the problem, not trying to hide it and not talking around it,” Camp says. “We should face up to the problems that we have had in the past with drift issues, and we want to do everything we can so we don’t have these problems in the future.”

Spray Safe’s efforts seem to be working, Nicol says. Spray drift incidents are down, and The Bakersfield Californian newspaper, which used to criticize farmers for their practices, now exhibits more balanced reporting.

An Aug. 31, 2006, article reporting a spray drift incident had quotes from Nicol as well as Kern County Farm Bureau’s executive director Matthew Park expressing his sorrow about the incident and his concern about worker safety. The article also featured the Spray Safe checklist.

“I don’t know if we’ve changed the attitude of a particular reporter, but we have given them information they didn’t have before,” Nicol says.

Create a more positive image

Spray Safe isn’t the only group that has worked with the Alliance of Food and Farming to improve communications. Formed in 1989, the alliance serves about 60 agricultural groups nationwide, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers Association, the Florida Tomato Committee and the Produce Marketing Association.

One of the alliance’s goals is to help agriculture communicate better with the public when controversial issues erupt.     

“What farmers are saying isn’t necessarily wrong—it just doesn’t ensure a high level of consumer confidence or create a positive image,” Dolan says.

To enlist public support, the alliance conducts consumer research to first test messages.

Among the topics they’ve surveyed are foodborne illness and perchlorate—the main ingredient in jet and rocket fuel—in lettuce.

“Every time we do it, we’re surprised at the findings,” Dolan says.

She cites the recent E. coli outbreak in spinach as an example. In the past, officials would have urged consumers to continue eating fruits and vegetables because of their positive health attributes. They also would have avoided talk of the foodborne illness itself.

“The thing you were telling them is to eat a lot of what is making them sick,” Dolan says. “You have to tell them what you are doing to make sure [the produce doesn’t] have foodborne illness. That’s what the consumer wants to know. We used to think that scared them.”