They’re not just preaching to the choir any more — the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation is taking the message about agriculture’s importance directly to the public.

“Our farmer members were constantly telling us we needed to come up with an effective way to get our message before the public, and we decided it was time to do something about it,” says Donald Gant, chairman of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Communications Committee.

Thus the impetus for the organization’s Ag Image Campaign 2010, launched in February in the Jackson, Miss., metro market, featuring billboards and TV spots, plus messages on a statewide radio network, a Web site, and distribution of printed materials and DVDs.

With the theme, “Farm Families of Mississippi” and a “Growing Mississippi” logo, the six-week campaign cost approximately $200,000.

“TV/radio time, billboards, etc., aren’t cheap,” says Gant, a Merigold, Miss., producer. “But, we were fortunate that a number of commodity organizations and agribusiness partners made generous contributions to supplement Farm Bureau money. All the creative and production work was done in-house, which was a considerable savings.”

And he says, a post-campaign survey of those who saw one of more of the messages shows the effort a success in influencing the respondents’ views about farmers and agriculture.

“A nine-member producer committee was formed in 2008 to look at ways we could be more proactive in telling agriculture’s story to the public,” says Justin Ferguson, Farm Bureau regional manager and commodity coordinator for cotton and rice at Senatobia, Miss.

“They looked at campaigns around the country and got a lot of ideas and advice. Start small, we were told, then evaluate what you’ve done, and build on that. We were advised, too, to get as many different groups and organizations as possible involved in supporting the effort and spreading the word about it.”

Preliminary work was launched in April 2009, with a survey by a market research firm to determine perceptions of the Mississippi public about farmers and farming and to develop ideas about key issues for the campaign.

“The results were very positive,” Ferguson says. “Farmers have a very good image in Mississippi, with a 93 percent favorable rating from the survey respondents. That’s a very close second to small business owners, with 94 percent.” Teachers ranked third, with 91 percent. Lowest rankings were for elected public officials, 54 percent, and corporate executives, 36 percent.

“Eighty-six percent said they believe American-produced food is safer than foreign food; 84 percent that Mississippi farmers treat their animals and livestock properly; 65 percent that most Mississippi farm operations are family farms; and 60 percent said they feel farmers are good stewards of the environment. While there were some areas of concern on certain issues, we were pleased that opinions of farmers were so strongly favorable.

“We also ended up with a list of almost 40 issues, which ran the gamut from animal rights to salmonella in peanut butter.”

Farms are family owned

From that list, Gant says, it was decided to concentrate the initial campaign around the fact that the majority of Mississippi farms are family owned, not corporate owned. “There’s a pretty big disconnect on this issue with the general public. While most farms today have a corporate structure for tax and legal purposes, they’re family owned, family run operations. The fact is, there are only a few large corporate farm operations in Mississippi.”

Another issue selected for the campaign, he says, was the affordability of food for U.S. consumers, as compared to other nations, and food safety.

A third was the issue of animal rights, which has received widespread media attention through the efforts of the Human Society of the United States, which is pushing legislation in a number of states that would severely limit or eliminate much of animal agriculture.

“We wanted to emphasize that our livestock and poultry producers treat their animals well,” Gant says. “These animals are their livelihood, and it’s in their best interests to see that they’re healthy and treated humanely.”

Once the three key issues were selected, Greg Gibson, media coordinator, and his department did the creative work for the billboards, TV/radio spots, and handout materials.

“We’re fortunate in having some very talented people, who did an outstanding job with these ideas,” Gant says.

The campaign was launched Feb. 15, with the three TV spots being shown on two stations in the Jackson market. The 30-second spots were run 1,200 times. As part of the package, one of the TV stations provided an equal number of public service spots with their on-air personality, Barbie Bassett, and Farm Bureau was allowed to host a cooking segment that featured a local farmer who talked about the campaign.

Billboards, 15 static and one digital, were purchased throughout the Jackson metro area in high visibility locations, and time was purchased on a statewide radio talk network. As a bonus, Farm Bureau spokespersons were guests on several of the talk shows to promote the campaign.

Another highlight of the campaign, Ferguson says, was a promotion with the Mississippi Braves, an AA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

“We sponsored a fireworks show at a Friday night game, attended by more than 4,000 people. Local farmers passed out Farm Families of Mississippi refrigerator magnets and recipe cards featuring Mississippi commodities. They also played our TV spots on the Jumbotron at center field and farm facts were read over the public address system between innings. And we purchased a banner that will hang in the stadium all year long.”

A Web site was created (Farmers are Growing Mississippi) to promote all the things farmers do for consumers, and includes links for the TV spots and other materials.

Results extremely strong

After the campaign ended, a follow-up survey was conducted by the research firm and, Ferguson says, “Results were extremely strong. Almost 53 percent of the respondents recalled seeing the ads or billboards, and there was a significant increase of those with favorable opinions on the three issues in the campaign.”

Gant says, “We were told that a 30 recall for a campaign is very good, so we felt 53 percent was excellent.

“Before the campaign began, only 37 percent of those surveyed thought Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than other countries. After the campaign, 49 percent agreed with that statement, a 12 percent change in perception. We were told beforehand if we could get a 4 percent to 5 percent change on any issue, we should be happy.”

Increases were also recorded for those who believe most farms in Mississippi are family farms, for those who have favorable opinions of farmers, and those who believe farmers are good stewards of the land — the latter increased by 28 percent.

“We feel this first effort has been tremendously successful,” Gant says, “and we hope to continue it in the years ahead.”

Although the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation provided seed money and in-kind services for the initial campaign, Gant notes that a number of other organizations and agribusiness companies contributed to the effort.

“Their support made it possible for us to have a more extensive campaign than we would have otherwise, and we’re grateful to them for making this a truly collaborative effort.”

Among the sponsors were Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association; Mississippi Corn, Soybean, Rice, and Peanut Promotion Boards; Cotton Incorporated; Mississippi Pork Producers Association; SUDIA (dairy check-off); Mississippi Beekeepers Association.

Mississippi Agricultural Industry Council; Mississippi Agricultural Industry Council; Mississippi Seedsmen’s Association; Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association; Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Association; Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

Case IH; Pioneer; DuPont; Monsanto; BASF; Syngenta; RiceTec; Jimmy Sanders Inc.; Bayer CropScience; Farmers Grain Terminal; Producers Rice Mill; Horizon Ag Services; Mississippi Land Bank.