Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 23 September 2018

The 'Beast from the East' was public relations gold for agri and food sectors

Sheep keeping an eye out for the Beast from the East. Pic Steve Humphreys
Sheep keeping an eye out for the Beast from the East. Pic Steve Humphreys
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

The recent 'Beast from the East' weather front resulted in surprisingly good press for the farmers and agriculture in general.

First, there was the highly publicised rush to purchase bread. Later images emerged of farmers clearing snow from roads and generously giving of their time to assist road users, particularly emergency vehicles.

Finally, reports of farmers braving the elements to feed livestock, milk cows and protect farm buildings all combined to educate the general public on the importance of the farmer in our community. This is public relations gold for our industry.

I have met and worked with farmers in many countries and the public perception of them and, by default, agriculture surprisingly differs a lot from country to country. Take Britain for example. There, dairy farmers lock the entrances to their farms and the doors of their livestock housing in fear of animal welfare activists entering and recording images.

Last summer, I visited the farm of JF Cobb & Sons in Dorset who have a large dairy farm where the cows are in a confinement system, i.e. milked indoors 365 days a year.

The Cobb Family have been farming since 1928, but their whole world came crashing down when a video taken by an animal welfare group using a drone to fly over the calf rearing unit went viral in March 2017.

To dairy farmers, the calves in the video clip were exceptionally well reared but to the general public, images of rearing calves in individual hutches were comparable to leaving your children at home locked in a playpen all day while you go to work.

Social media and the tabloid newspapers milked the story for all it was worth, with frightening headlines and articles.

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This in spite of DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the local county council and Marks & Spencer all giving the Cobb calf rearing facility and dairy farm a clean bill of health.

In stark contrast to the UK, France is a country that reveres its farmers.

The farmer is viewed as an important person in society who produces wonderful French food and is the custodian of the countryside.

The public support French farmers when they protest about prices or markets.

The public opinion of farmers is good in France, but it's a different story in New Zealand.

The backbone of the Kiwi economy for the last 40 years has been dairy farming and most of those who stayed in the industry in this period have thrived and grown the New Zealand dairy industry to be a world class player.

However, public opinion in New Zealand has turned against dairy farmers with a 'dirty dairy' campaign highlighting issues such as water usage, pollution and the treatment of jersey cross calves (bobby calves).

The behaviour of poor operators has been to the detriment of all dairy farmers. Public opinion of farmers is changing for the worse there.

So where does Ireland rank when it comes to the general public opinion of our farmers and the wider agricultural industry?

Clearly, agriculture and food was the only show in town during the economic recession from 2007-2014. This, plus the removal of milk quotas in April 2015, helped elevate farming as a positive career choice in the public eye.

The Irish public now know that farming is an asset-rich but cash-poor business, with long work hours, often in unforgiving weather conditions.

They know their food is safe and produced to the highest of standards and that we produce so much that it is exported to over 180 countries around the world. But how can we build on this solid base to further improve the image of Irish farmers, agriculture and food? The simple answer is education.

We must educate our farmers, all of us who work in the industry, our children and the general public on the strengths and weaknesses of our system of food production.

For example, in a veganism debate recently on RTE television, the representatives from the vegan society portrayed an excellent image of their lifestyle choice, even though practising veganism requires serious education and self-discipline, which will probably ensure it will always be a minority choice.

We in the industry must learn from these experiences and better utilise such opportunities to boost our industry's image.

Government trade missions, the Department, Teagasc, Agri-Aware, Bord Bia, Farming Press and international food and drink companies all do a good job in promoting the agri-food industry, but is this enough?

Could we have a co-ordinated marketing plan for the industry?

For example, a co-ordinated approach would have enabled the industry to speedily capitalise on empty shelves in our supermarkets before, during and after the lockdown due to the recent snow. Video clips on social media, adverts, newspaper ads, radio and TV interviews showing the empty shelves and relating it to the importance of the farmer in food and drink production would reinforce excellence in the industry for the benefit of all.

Irish farmers, agriculture, food and drink are among the very best in the world, but we need to become a lot more savvy in getting that message across at home and abroad.

Mike Brady is Managing Director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents, email: mike@bradygroup.ie.

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