Being diagnosed with autism at a young age hasn't stopped Temple Grandin from becoming one of the most influential people in the livestock industry. Today, about half the cattle in the U.S. are handled by systems she designed.
Her ideas and opinions are also well known in the industry. "Ag has done a lousy job of communicating with the public," she says. This contributes to the public's disconnection from agriculture. "The public doesn't know about any of the good things that are being done.
"What we learned from pink slime is the consumer does not like surprises," continues Grandin. "When I found out what it was, it's a product that should be on the market." She notes that the use of Lean Finely Textured Beef actually uses the entire animal, rather than wasting some of it.
Another example is a potential vaccine shot, not a hormone, which immunizes against making testosterone, an alternative to castrating piglets.
"We've got to explain how this shot works so it's not a surprise," she says. "Are we going to yank the testicles out of these little screeching piglets or are we going to give them the shots?" she asks. "Most people are going to choose the shots."
People are curious
People should show what facilities look like, she adds. "You've got to take the mystery out of things."
She suggests inviting consumers and media for farm tours, keeping biosecurity in mind. "PR people are way too timid," Grandin says. It doesn't look good when people are told they can't see what's going on. She recalls her experience with Hollywood press.
"These were reporters that cover a wide variety of things," she says, noting some reporters might have an agenda. "They just wanted to know, 'How does that stuff actually work?'"
Using social media and posting photos and videos is another step. Grandin notes the viral video made last summer by Kansas State University students. The video, "I'm Farming and I Grow It," based on, "I'm Sexy and I Know It," shows everyday farm work – from feeding cattle to growing corn. "It was absolutely fabulous," she says. "You need to be doing stuff like that."
Although it may seem mundane to farmers, posting videos and photos of farms and farm work is a great way to reach out. "What are chores to you is fascinating to the public," Grandin says. This also means acting naturally, without starting a debate. "People like to see real people. Don't get in there and talk PR fluff stuff, or go on a tirade against the government."
When reading viewer comments, farmers should welcome opposition. "Don't take down dissent," she says. It's a good idea to write responses to opposition on a word document before posting.
"Don't get so hung up on your own views that you get mad," she says. "Never, never, never, never type directly on a website. That is dangerous."
Not all comments are polite. Profanity should be monitored and taken down if posted, she says.. "It's got to be a civilized conversation."
– Harris is field editor for Kansas Farmer, Wallaces Farmer and Missouri Ruralist