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Corn+Soybean Digest

Not Just a Farmer Anymore

You sell yourself — and your farm — to the public every day, whether you realize it or not. And, the perception you create may affect how you farm in the future.

“Whether you like it or not, public perception is reality. Everybody does some form of public relations, they just don't label it as such,” says Bloomington, IL, farmer Jason Lay. “When you go to the coffee shop, farm supply store or the bank and have a discussion, you leave an impression. You need to be concerned about what kind of an impression you leave.”

Your public image is more important than it used to be. “The days are gone where farmers were self-sufficient. In today's world, our role has changed. A lot more people have a vested interest in what we're doing — people like landlords, vendors and employees,” Lay says. He farms 2,600 acres of owned, family-owned and rented ground with his father Loren.

So Lay, like a growing number of farmers, has a public relations (PR) plan in place. “When I came back to the farm four years ago, I wrote down how I wanted to be perceived in the community, and how I would accomplish that. I review the plan once a year and it's amazing how fast it's changed in four years.”

Pigs might have the biggest PR problem in America. It's an issue risk-management consultant Moe Russell, Russell Consulting Group, Panora, IA, faced when he became an investor in a finishing unit in eastern Iowa in 2003.

RUSSELL IS ON the faculty of the Texas A&M Executive Program for Ag Producers (TEPAP) and teaches a class on farm PR each year to farmers participating in the two-year program. So, it was time for him to practice what he preaches.

“We had 40 to 50 farmers show up at the zoning meeting to oppose us building the hog unit,” he says. The zoning ultimately was approved, and when Russell's group applied for a second building location in 2007, only one farmer showed up. “He was there to voice his approval for the building,” Russell says. “He wanted the manure.”

A lot had happened between those two meetings that changed the community's attitude. Russell believes it's largely because of an active PR program he and his investors put together to prove that they could raise hogs and be good neighbors.

“In the movies, John Wayne could act any way he wanted and protect his land the way he wanted,” Russell says. “Those days are over. In today's world, you can reduce risk and add to profitability with an active PR plan that expresses your desire to operate with the highest standards of professionalism.”

The days when keeping fences painted, ditches mowed and fields weed-free were enough of a statement are gone, according to Lay. “We put together a farm resume that basically explains who we are, how we operate and the line of equipment we use,” Lay says. “I had people come up to me and say they'd been family friends for 15 years and didn't know half the stuff on that sheet.”

PART OF LAY'S program is aimed at direct talks with landlords. “I don't have to farm every acre in the county to be happy, but I do fear who does farm them. Your community changes as farmers come into it from other areas,” he says. “As part of our discussions with landlords, we went to different types of leases with variable cash rents. We take the approach that we're all part of a team, and we all need to succeed.”

Lay bases his PR program in part on the successful people he worked with in the ag industry before he returned to the farm. “I learned that the most successful teams had a well-thought-out, structured plan that they stuck to,” he says. “They have a sense of direction and clear expectations.”

And, of course, it never hurts to throw a party. “It's neat to get everybody we work with together as a community,” he says. So, once a year he turns his heated farm shop into a social hall and invites vendors, landlords, family and friends to stop by for a burger and a brew.

“We're trying to do the best job we can with each operation. I think it's healthy to have them all together,” he says. “Some guys would be terrified to have their landlords together because they're afraid they'll start to compare what they're getting paid. You think they don't know that already?”

Before a single pig went into Russell's hog operation, he filled it with people from the surrounding community. “We wanted to show them that it was state-of-the-art technology. We also showed how the pigs would be handled and how the buildings would be managed,” he says.

Folks who attended may or may not have noticed the shelterbelt that had been planted to direct odor up and away from the site, or the landscaping that had been done to make the site look more like a business and less like a pig farm.

But, neighbors certainly notice when they're notified before hog manure gets spread on local fields. “We always ask to make sure they don't have something planned that would be bothered by spreading manure,” Russell says. “In one case, a neighbor actually had a backyard wedding reception planned for the week we were going to spread manure. So, we just waited a week. They were really happy and we avoided a major PR disaster. A lot of times, it's just common courtesy.”

WHAT ISN'T SEEN can be as important as what is around your farm operation, according to Russell. “We invested $35,000 in a pig-composting unit,” Russell adds. “No one driving by ever sees a dead pig laying outside a building.”

Russell believes it's important to tell the community about major investments you make on your farm. “If a new beauty shop opens on Main St., there's a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and the mayor's there talking about the economic impact the shop will have on the community,” he says. “But farmers make million-dollar investments and nobody knows. It's an opportunity to invite the public to see what you're doing and help them understand your business.”

There's no formal presentation at Lay's party. He spends the time mingling. “There are other ways to do it. In the future we might have a PowerPoint presentation or showcase our machinery,” he says. “Mostly I just want them to understand that it's in everybody's best interest that we all be successful.”

Lay lives on a busy country highway, which gives him and his family a chance to do PR work with the community. “We run a vegetable stand in our front yard. We don't do it to make money; it's a way to get local guys on our farm and a chance to win over the public long term. As farmers, we need to take a more active role in educating the average consumer on issues that affect agriculture.”

WHILE HE HAS developed newsletters in the past, Lay believes a password-protected Web site might be one of the best ways to stay in touch with landlords in the future. “I'm working on one now that would allow the landlord to go online and be able to access all the financial information, production information, photos etc.,” he says.

Lay even takes time to work with the dreaded media. “There's a certain amount of that that comes with positions I have with state farm organizations,” he says. “But, we've also started to put out press releases about the farm. They're concise, positive pieces that explain something about our farm. We're still learning how to work with the media. That plan is moving forward.”

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