2012 Finalist

A time for change…

A time for change…

The recent announcement by Nocton Dairies that they are shelving plans for a large scale dairy farm in Lincolnshire appears to have brought a temporary hiatus to the rhetoric being put out by the anti-animal agriculture lobby against dairy farming.

This is not the place for a debate about the rights and wrongs of large-scale intensive agriculture. What I will say, however, is that I have personally visited the US dairies on which the Nocton proposals were modelled and, having worked practically with dairy cows for almost 20 years, there are not many farms that I have been to where cow comfort and welfare is so good.

But I believe it is really a philosophical and emotional debate rather than a factual one and it is on the emotional level that the dairy industry is losing.

It is fact that cow welfare is as good, and in many cases better, on some large-scale 'intensive' dairy farms than it is on some small traditional pastoral dairy systems. Welfare is not a factor of scale or farming system it is a factor of management approach and culture. Good welfare is about putting the cow first.

Yet the public are massively removed from agriculture and as such have little or no knowledge of either how milk is produced or how cows are kept. The general perception people have is of cows sweetly grazing in lush paddocks and anything outside that 'chocolate box' image is assumed to be bad.

Those in the industry know this is not the case. I recently visited a well known and award winning open farm park with my family during the February half term. We were with some non-farming friends and they probably looked upon the single dairy cow out in the exposed bare pasture as the perfect example of 'how things should be done'. What I saw was a herd animal being kept by herself in horribly muddy conditions with no shelter from the freezing rain and poor access to feed and water. Not where I would want to be a cow!

But here is the nub of the problem. As an industry farming has lost touch with the most important audience of all - the consumers who buy our products. In this vacuum of knowledge the undoubtedly effective and emotive 'factory farming' campaigning by groups such as the WSPA cannot fail to get support.

I don't believe that it is something to moan about. It is something to react to. Dairy farmers and the wider dairy industry need to step up to the mark. As an industry we need to start to produce effective and emotive campaigns of our own.

Farmers need to recognise that they have a vested interest in engaging with their local community and the wider consumer base to tell their story. They need to explain how they care for animals, working long and unpredictable hours in difficult conditions to raise livestock. They need to share the feeling of joy that still comes every time a calf is born successfully and how, somehow, that makes being out in the cow shed at 2am worthwhile, no matter how dog tired they are.

Everyone working in the dairy sector needs to be proud to do so and needs to help consumers feel proud that farmers work hard to produce them great food.

And in the same way that Nocton looked to the US for inspiration, perhaps as agricultural communicators we should do the same.

In the US they have an established and successful communication campaign called 'Thank a farmer'. It taps into the emotional connection that we all subconsciously have with the land and builds pride in their agricultural industry. US farmers have also embraced 'agvocacy' (farmers working to promote agriculture to a wider audience) and many are using social media such as twitter to connect with people and tell their story without even leaving the farm.

Evidence and common sense suggests that this is the way forward. It is the responsibility of those of us who work in the dairy farming sector to change perceptions. We must stand up and be counted. We must work to promote our good practice to consumers and root out any farmers that let us down by not meeting acceptable standards. We must stop sniping at each other and welcome the diversity of farming systems that is necessary to cope with geographical and climatic differences across the country. We must build trust and credibility in what we do and say.

Activities such as open farm Sunday undoubtedly help and there are a growing number of farmers with websites, twitter accounts and positive engagement strategies. But we can no longer rely on the minority to do our communicating for us.

In the future we have more mouths to feed and sustainable intensification is widely regarded as the route to achieving this. But if we don't get the story right then we are going to struggle to maintain a viable industry. If consumers don't believe we are acting in good faith and care about our animals then they will not buy our products.

Rather than seeing Nocton's ambitious proposals as something that caused a reputational risk to the industry, perhaps we should be actually seeing it as a welcome wake up call to how we have ignored our most important audience and failed, as an industry, to get our message across.

Now is the time for change. We have an opportunity to put things right. Let's hope that we don't look back and wish that we had taken the opportunity when we had the chance.

Written by Philip at 11:48


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