How many times in recent years have you heard some variation of these statements:
“Agriculture gets a bum rap in the media, which portray farmers as despoilers of the environment, hogging government subsidies.”
“The average person knows nothing about agriculture or the role it plays in the nation's economy.”
“Somebody needs to do something to tell agriculture's side of the story to the public.”
Rich Hillman, a rice, soybean and wheat farmer at Carlisle, Ark., knew all those laments by heart, had in fact made them himself on any number of occasions.
“Agriculture is under the gun,” he says. “Activist groups are taking potshots at us on every turn. We've all agreed something needed to be done to tell agriculture's story, but that's about as far as it went. We felt we were preaching to the choir, talking among ourselves.”
Then one day, “We decided it was time to get down off our soapboxes, put up some money, and do something. We felt there had to be others who would be willing to give time and money and expertise toward getting the farmer's story before the public.”
Within six months, the non-profit Arkansas Foundation for Agriculture had been chartered, its mission to “enhance the awareness and understanding of the contribution and importance of agriculture to the state of Arkansas;” nearly $100,000 had been raised from commodity organizations, producers, and businesses; and an ad agency hired to do the creative work.
Hillman, who serves as chairman of the foundation's board of directors, says, “In our first year of operation, we ran commercials on major Arkansas TV and radio stations, produced a 16-page supplement for the state's major newspaper that featured material telling agriculture's story, placed billboards in high-traffic areas, and distributed thousands of envelope stuffers, brochures, and other hand-out materials.
“These resulted in a grand total of 36.5 million viewer, reader, and listener impressions. The comments have been fantastic — from the governor and legislators to soccer moms, business executives, and students.”
Additional free publicity was garnered through sponsorship of and participation in ag-related events around the state.
The campaign's message was brief and to the point: “Who protects us with safe, affordable food, while protecting wildlife habitat and the environment? Who creates jobs and makes good, hard-working neighbors? The farm families of Arkansas — that's who!”
A Website, www.thatswho.org, carries the campaign message, along with information about AFA, and video and audio clips of the TV and radio commercials.
A second campaign will be launched soon, with the theme “Farm Families Growing Arkansas, Generation to Generation.” It emphasizes that farmers are not only producers of food and fiber, but that agriculture represents 25 percent of the state's economy and helps to grow industry and business.
AFA's goal is to raise at least $100,000 annually to support the awareness effort, Hillman says. “We want to expand our solicitation efforts beyond ag organizations and producers. Almost every business in Arkansas is affected by agriculture, and we hope we'll be able to get corporate and business sponsors to join with us so we can expand this program,” Hillman says.
“I quickly found out that buying media advertising is a costly business, so we've had to concentrate on getting the most exposure for the money we have. With the economy as it is and the downturn in agriculture, we've been very gratified to have received such widespread support. Almost every commodity group in Arkansas is a contributor. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has also been a contributor, since it has such an important partnership with agriculture: almost 75 percent of all wildlife habitat in our state is on agricultural land.
“If we can get this kind of support during tough times, we hope we'll be able to do even better when the economy improves. I'm proud that we've been able to reach across boundaries and enlist participation by almost every agricultural interest group in the state, from row crops to aquaculture to livestock and poultry to forestry.”
In last year's farm bill debate, Hillman says, “It was brought home to America's farmers that they're in a new ballgame, that public perception is a very important influence on how agriculture is viewed by the public and by Congress. It demonstrated quite strongly that we need to become proactive, to toot our own horn in order to counteract the negative spin that others have put on agriculture.
“We farmers have been so busy trying to stay in business that we've let anti-agriculture groups define us instead of defining ourselves.
“For decades, we had representatives in Washington who understood the importance of agriculture to this nation's security and well-being. But the political landscape has changed, and agriculture has to get in and fight to make its story heard. To do that, we need public support.”
AFA's goal, Hillman says, “is to do everything we possibly can to tell the public the truth about agriculture — that the land is the farmer's most valuable resource and that he has a vested interested in protecting that resource.
“We're still learning as we go, and trying to improve our programs to make our message more effective.”
In the developmental stage, he says, is a 30-minute PowerPoint computer presentation aimed at fifth grade students.
“We hope to contract with a person who knows agriculture and school systems and can break new ground by taking this program into schools all over the state. Even in rural communities, most students today don't live on farms and don't really have any firsthand knowledge of agriculture or its importance to our state.”
The public has become farther and farther removed from farming, Hillman says. “The perception is of “some guy in overalls, who has an antiquated tractor, a rickety pickup, and some goats, pigs, and cows.
“We want them to know that today's farmer is a well-educated, astute businessman, who uses the latest technology and environmentally-friendly techniques to produce the most abundant and cheapest food and fiber in the world — that there is no better steward of the environment than the producer whose livelihood and family's future depends on protecting the land he farms.”
Hillman hopes what has been done to spread agriculture's message in Arkansas will be duplicated in other states.
“We have an important story to tell,” he says. “We need to tell the public the truth about what we do for them, rather than letting anti-agriculture groups paint a negative picture of us.”
Major contributors to AFA include the Arkansas Catfish Promotion Board, Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, Arkansas Corn and Grain Sorghum Promotion Board, Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Ornamental and Baitfish Association, Arkansas Pork Producers Association, Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, Arkansas Wheat Promotion Board, AgHeritage/Farm Credit Services, Publishing Concepts, Inc., and Southern Cotton Ginners Association.
Serving with Hillman on the foundation's board of directors are Joe Torian, vice-chairman; Cal McCastlain, treasurer; Jack Thomas, secretary; and John Andrews, Davey Farabough, Morril Harriman, Jerry Masters, Ray Rogers, Curtis Stewart, David Walt, and Ewell Welch.