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Webster’s dictionary describes apathy as “the feeling of not having much emotion or interest”. Given all the discussion that’s happening in the media about food and how it’s grown or raised, some days I just wish that people would show a little apathy, or maybe not care as much or take such an interest. This is especially true when their interest happen to be different that mine.
Okay, that’s not really true. I’m glad people care about what they eat and are interested in where they food comes from and the people that grow it. I just wish they’d try a little harder to actually connect with the people that are involved in food production and not any random “expert from the internet”. I know that’s easier said than done. How do you find a farmer? I actually checked out the yellow pages from the Mankato/New Ulm phone book and found a number of listings under “Farms”. This brings up two questions; 1) does anyone use the yellow pages anymore and 2) if you called one of those farms, would the farmers actually talk to you?
I have a suggestion. Check out the Pig3D website from the MN Pork Board and the MN Pork Producers Association. You’ll find it at http://www.pig3d.com. You’ll also find videos showing real pig farmers and great resource information. There’s even a spot to send a question to a real farmer so that you can get an honest answer. If Facebook or Twitter are your style, check out #RealPigFarming. Farmers are talking and showing pictures about what they do every day. The MN State Fair will be held the end of August and that’s another great spot to talk to farmers.
I am so lucky. As a pig farmer I wake up each day knowing where most of my food comes from. I understand some of you have questions on food safety and animal welfare practices. Please ask them. Just ask them from someone who knows what they are talking about and are living the experience every day.

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This week I attended a media training event hosted by the MN Pork Board. This exercise was designed to help us become more comfortable in our interviews with the media. However, much of what we discussed was developing our key messages, which are specific points we want to get across whether we’re visiting with the media, the general public or our neighbors.

Mary Milla, our instructor, encouraged us to have “Front of the Box” messages. To help illustrate this point, look at the front of a pizza box. All the things that attract us to that pizza, “thin & crispy”, “ready to eat in 10-12 minutes” or “all natural” are on the front of the box. However, many of us spend our time using “Back of the Box” messages when visiting with consumers or the media. Flip your pizza box over and look at the back. It consists of information such as baking directions, ingredients, history of the company, etc, etc. Generally the information, while important, isn’t all that interesting and can be rather technical.

We in agriculture are instructed to “Tell our Story”, yet when it comes to doing so we often fall into the trap of talking about technical information, using jargon unfamiliar to our audience. Boy, that’s really going to endear them to what we’re doing as farmers…NOT.

Using key messages from the “front of the box” that have a higher impact on our audience and allow them to identify with us closer will help us become more successful speakers. They will remember what we said and not just get lost in the words.

Thank you Mary for all your help. I will never look at the front of a pizza box the same way again.

For those of us that wear multiple hats, which are most of us, introducing yourself at a meeting can be a bit of an exercise. Recently I attended an agribusiness meeting and all the attendees introduced themselves. As we went around the room, I debated list myself as a farmer first, or as an employee of Hubbard Feeds? As the microphone finally made it to me, I went with farmer first, then Hubbard employee, although I ended up stumbling through my introduction and wanting to have a “do-over.”

The whole experience did get me to think about how we view ourselves, especially those of us that have jobs off the farm. I know it depends on the situation, but really how do you view yourself? Who are you?

At the end of the day (and the beginning), I am a farmer. It’s the lifestyle I grew up with and it’s the way I live now. Being a farmer influences my decision making and my values. I have a soft spot in my heart for animals and want to give them the best care possible. I also know that these animals are a source of income for us and a source of food for others. As a farmer I tend to be frugal, practical and sometimes a little skeptical although some might call it guarded. As farmers, we’re in tune with the rhythm of life, the seasons and how nature controls so much of what we do. We deal with life and death and both can affect us dramatically.

Farming may not be glamorous and high profile but it is important as we’ve seen by the increasing interest in knowing where your food comes. Farmers come in all shapes and styles and use a variety of methods to produce food. While there may be differences, there are also similarities. Farmers want to grow crops, raise animals and sell their products so that others can eat. Farmers want to farm. Perhaps more than any other occupation, it gets in your blood and becomes not just your job, but your lifestyle. Yep, I am a farmer.

My daughter Beth has a whiteboard in her room. Every night before she goes to bed, I write a phrase with the letter “B” on it. It’s a fun routine we do that’s meant to encourage her and end the night on a positive note. Recently before an important cross country meet, I wrote the phrase, “Don’t stop “B” lieving”.

How many of us in agriculture need to take those words to heart? Sometimes it would be easier to stop believing. Poor weather, low yielding crops, employees that don’t have our animals’ best interests at heart and organizations that want to demonize agriculture can get the best of us some days. At times it feels like the world is against agriculture. For a group of people that feeds the world, it would easy to stop caring, to stop believing in the positive aspects of agriculture.

But that’s not who we are. Despite challenges, we believe there will be another spring, another fall and another crop. Despite those who say we mistreat our animals, we believe that protecting them from the elements and each other provides the best care and welfare. For those consumers that may not understand what we do, we believe that by telling our story, we can make a difference.

We provide safe, healthy, and affordable food not just for a nation, but for the world. As pork producers each pound of pork we produce uses 41% less water than 40 years ago. We’ve reduced our carbon footprint by 35% at the same time.

Steve Perry had it right. Don’t Stop Believing.

Recently, two events happened that made me proud of my sons and also made me realize they are starting to find their voice for agriculture. The first involved Adam and his response an editorial post he had received on Twitter from the Star Tribune. Dale and I were on our way to Lanesboro biking when Adam called and said he wanted to comment on a post regarding gestation stalls. He wanted to confirm a few facts with me before responding. We talked through the situation and he retweeted his response about animal care and worker safety. I’m happy to say the Star Tribune acknowledged his tweet and recognized the points he made.

About the same time this was happening, we received a picture from Brett showing an advertisement for meatless Monday on the napkin container at the U’s cafeteria. He and I discussed the value of lean protein and the sustainability of modern production. Brett’s comment was “I’ll try to make that a point of conversation sometime.”

I realize these aren’t significant events, but what I’m most pleased with is that the boys are aware of this misinformation and feel compelled to acknowledge and respond to it. It’s a small step, but as their comfort level grows, they’ll have a greater impact.

This past week my son Brett participated in the Pork Ambassador program at Farmfest. I had the opportunity to watch most of the Ambassadors give their presentations in the MN Soybean Association tent. I was impressed by the knowledge these kids had and the ability to talk in public about the most challenging issues facing pork production today. These kids did not shy away from acknowledging that sow housing and the consumers’ disconnect with agriculture are concerns many of them have. While each Ambassador has a little different perspective based on their life experiences, they all had a good understanding of modern production and gave their opinions on what could be done to improve these challenges.

On Saturday my son Adam and I did an Oink Outing at the Hopkins Farmers market. Once again I impressed with Brad, our summer intern and Sarah, our past Ambassador and their willingness to talk to the public about modern farming. Twice now I have watched Sarah interact with someone who started out friendly but then became sarcastic about pig farming. Both times Sarah remained professional and polite and stuck to the issue. Even when these people would walk off with a rude comment, Sarah never lost her composure.

I am so impressed and proud of these young individuals. They are passionate about the pork industry and are eager to find careers and ways to stay involved. I know there are more of these types of young individuals out there and that makes me feel positive about the future of agriculture. We just need to make sure some other industry doesn’t hire them away from us.

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For many of us in the farming community, this spring was challenging to say the least. Extremely wet weather not only delayed planting, but forced many of us to talk about “preventive planting.” We’re now facing the warm days of summer and it is hard to believe that summer is really here and almost half over.

June was a big “pork” month for the Stevermer family. If you recall from my last blog, both Adam and Brett had the opportunity to take part in a couple of agricultural tours through the MN Pork Board. It was extremely beneficial for both boys. Even though they have been exposed to many aspects of agriculture, they still came away learning something new. One thing that made the biggest impression was the use of technology in agriculture. From packing plants to drones to manufacturing, technology helps make agriculture more efficient, sustainable and even safer for the workers.

A highlight for us is our weekend in Duluth at Grandma’s Marathon. This is the fourth year the MN Pork Board has been a sponsor and we now have people looking for us. They have come to appreciate the great taste of pork (especially on a cold morning after a long run) and are also starting to understand that pork is a healthy, lean protein.

There are many great opportunities to learn, for kids and adults, don’t be afraid to take advantage of them.

Those of you that have been following this blog know that we like to get our family involved in pork activities. It’s a way to both help them learn more about the industry and to give back to it. This last week was World Pork Expo and Beth and Adam, as usual spent time helping in the Hubbard Feeds booth. In the past their main goal was to find candy at the different exhibitors but now they recognize different companies and what they provide. They also found out that Mom and Dad know a lot of people.

This next week Brett will participate in the MN Agriculture Ambassador Institute. He’s participating as a member of the Pork Ambassadors. This seminar is designed to provide leadership and communication skills to kids who will be representing various aspects of production agriculture. They will also have an opportunity to see firsthand how different types of technology is used in agriculture. This will be a great opportunity for Brett to meet other kids, to learn more about agriculture and hopefully to build his confidence in speaking to others about the truths of agriculture. Since he’ll be attending the U of MN Twin Cities, I suspect he may have a few opportunities to share his farm background with others.

Adam will also participate in the Swine Industry tour later this month. This will give him an up close view of some other aspects of agriculture and since he’s thinking of a career in ag, hopefully will help him decide what he might like to do.

People talk about the future of agriculture and the need to get young people involved. Hats off to the MN Pork Board and other agriculture organizations for putting together these learning opportunities for kids interested in agriculture. Even though some of the kids may not end up with a career in ag, the things they learn will help them be good spokespeople for our industry.

 

That was the question posed to Beth and me on our recent visit to Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis. Why do you raise pigs instead of crops or vegetables? Interesting question, one that made me think for a moment. I started to reply that it was part of our heritage. Dale’s grandfather and father had both been pig farmers, so it was natural for Dale to continue to do so. Heritage and tradition are a large part of agriculture and our family is no different. I also came from a hog farm so it seemed natural for me to be married to a pork producer.

I also went on to explain that we really enjoy taking care of the animals. That was a common message throughout the whole day – things that Dale does to take care of the animals. I think people who don’t know much about agriculture – especially animal agriculture, really underestimate how much you have to care about animals to do it for a living. Why else would you stay up late or get up early to feed and take care of them?

My answer seemed to satisfy her curiosity and I went on to address the other questions. Later, the teacher told me that particular student was a vegetarian and had been struggling a bit with her class adopting a pig farmer. Naturally I replayed my answer in my mind, wondering if I could have said something different, something better. When I asked the teacher about my response, she said it was just fine.

Why do we raise pigs? Because deep down at the end of the day, after all the talk about productivity and profitability, it’s because we really like caring for animals.

My daughter Beth and I will once again be part of Provider Pals, an organization designed to help urban kids learn about agriculture. The kids send us questions throughout the school year to learn more about what we do on the farm. A typical question we get is “What is it like to live on a farm?” I imagine that for a young child in downtown Minneapolis, a farm must seem like another country. Beth and I do our best to talk about the freedom we have on the farm and also the responsibilities. Growing up on a farm myself, I look back on my childhood and think of the wonderful opportunities to use my imagination and create things. Today, I encourage my kids to “figure it out” when there is a task that needs to be done, or a problem that needs to be solved.

It seems like the kids always want to know how many animals we have on our farm. 1000 pigs of various sizes always gets a “Wow” response and why not. If you don’t know anything about modern production, 1000 to a kid can seem like a million.

While this is a great opportunity to teach kids about pig farming, I can’t help but wish there was a way to tell our story to every urban kid so that they could get an accurate picture of agriculture. However, if we can help even a few kids understand more about today’s pig farmers, it’s better than none.