Challenges around how farmers communicate with audiences outside the farm gate in the deer industry have lessons for the wider agricultural industry, including dairy, Phil Edmonds writes.

Farmers have never been positioned as weakly in a public relations sense as they are right now, Primary Sector Council chair Lain Jager said addressing the 2019 Deer Industry conference in May.

Issuing a challenge to think again about how farmers can most effectively communicate with and have a positive influence on audiences beyond the farmgate, Jager said “at the moment we are just seen as defensive and angry, and it’s not working”.

So what might the answer be? Some industry representatives are starting to say farmers need to forget about science, facts and figures, and get emotional.

The unfamiliar circumstances where farmgate prices are buoyant but farmer confidence mediocre has led to plenty of head-scratching. At the Deer Industry Conference Jager said he had never seen farmers so grumpy when returns were so good.

There is no shortage of stats and surveys to back up this observation. Coverage of Statistics NZ trade data for the year ending April 2019 headlined with the rising demand for beef and lamb making a big impact on New Zealand’s annual goods exports to China reaching $15 billion for the first time. At the same time, ANZ’s monthly business outlook survey for May showed confidence among NZ businesses remained the lowest in the agriculture sector with a net 63.9% of respondents in the sector expecting general business conditions to deteriorate during the coming year.

‘We could march down to the Beehive and demand respect, but that is not how respect works. You earn it, not demand it. In terms of the environment we are not ahead of our time. The world has moved on and we haven’t moved quickly enough.’

The downbeat sentiment has been long attributed to the fear of impending cost rises in environmental compliance and the associated negative impact on profitability. This has been vocalised with frequency, in gloomy, grave tones by farmers and advocating bodies.

There is no doubt regulatory changes will have an impact on farm operations and indeed in some cases challenge certain conventional production systems and a natural reaction is to fight it. But some say fighting it is yesterday’s approach. We are now in a different world and if the farming sector wants to be heard it will need to alter its PR.

Deer Industry New Zealand’s chief executive Dan Coup appears to be one. He introduced the annual conference in Wellington by attributing scores to the industry’s effort and achievement over the past 12 months. There were some positives – mainly economic with encouraging premium positioning for velvet and growing onfarm value but Coup didn’t dwell on these. More attention was paid to areas considered to be holding the industry back, and this included farming more sustainably and whether or not the industry is ‘respected’. Both these aspects of the industry’s strategy were given ‘C’ passes.

On the latter, Coup said DINZ surveys found the industry is respected by fellow farmers but in terms of the wider public, and politicians, “the industry has not done enough work to get the respect of these people”.

Coup was explicit in reiterating the importance of gaining respect beyond the industry as it faces regulation on water quality, climate change and more within the next year or so. Without respect then an objective hearing of any concerns is less likely. “If you haven’t got the respect of the voting public and the politicians then you are going to pay the price.”

Most significantly, Coup was insistent that conventional methods of getting respect will no longer work.

“We could march down to the Beehive and demand respect, but that is not how respect works. You earn it, not demand it. In terms of the environment we are not ahead of our time. The world has moved on and we haven’t moved quickly enough.”

DINZ board chair Ian Walker echoed the sentiment on the urgency of shifting thinking on the environment, and how the industry projects its reaction and commitment.

Walker said the conventional response to farmers being challenged to lift their game on the environment has been “you have to be in the black before you can invest in the green”.

The insistence of a change in mindset has no doubt been prompted by the extent to which farmers have responded to the industry’s attempt to have all deer farmers complete a farm environmental plan by the end of next year.

Coup said this was the industry’s strategic attempt to “get on the environment bus,” but the results from an industry survey showed 40% of deer farmers had completed an environmental plan. “Unfortunately, at that rate we are not going to get there.”

Addressing the same audience, Jager made it clear the entire primary sector needs to reset the way it projects itself outside its own industry.

Part of the reason for this, Jager accepted, is due to the unfortunate consequence of misinformation projected through social media. But this does not represent an excuse to be righteous or expect ‘truth will prevail’.

Perceptions of misinformation, or the absence of a rational conversation about the environmental impact of climate change was simply down to people reacting with fear to the global climate in crisis. This emerging fear means people are looking to blame others, and this fear will only get worse where there will be no space for rational dialogue.

Jager said this basically means there will be no space for farmers to gain traction with ‘facts’ – that NZ is only responsible for 0.3% of global emissions, farmers are only a bit of the problem, responding will take time and so on.

So if the familiar method of advancing farmer interests no longer works, what will?

It would be easy to say just be proactive, rather than reactive. But farmers can’t be accused of not being proactive. There’s a long track record of successfully finding innovative solutions for emerging problems and simply being resistant is not a fair or accurate portrayal of how farmers typically react.

Jager says the key for the farming sector is to position itself in a leadership space, speak with authority but first and foremost recognise that farmers can only ‘win’ the PR challenge if the country is comfortable  with their environmental position.

“We can all find things about the science and the dialogue that we don’t like but we will never win the PR battle by pushing back on the detail around the science or the burden being placed on us. It’s about sharing a goal.

“The opportunity is to acknowledge the global situation and share the targets set by the Government and to work on a pan-sector basis to develop first class policy to work on the challenges ahead of us.”

That’s all good for a strategy, but how to practically project it?

Beef + Lamb NZ’s Environmental Reference Group chairman Mark Adams proposes a potentially difficult transition from recounting facts to expressing emotion. This is essentially ‘forget the science, show the passion.’

“We tend to respond with facts and figures and logic, and in so doing we completely ignore our best defence, which is passion. We are good at telling people what we do, and how we do it, but we are rubbish at telling people why we do it. If we are able to successfully convey our passion, which is intensely emotional and personal then we should stand a much better chance of getting PR cut-through.”

This approach was also promoted at the DINZ conference by farmer and previous environmental award winner Simon Vincent. Farmers shouldn’t simply think that if they had complied with environmental regulations their job was done, he said noting it’s more important to talk about how it was achieved and the personal commitment that went into it.

“It’s the personal bit that ties it all together. You can tick the boxes, but that almost represents a factory. We receive customers onfarm to look over our practices, and when they see what we go through, it shows that what farmers do is not just deliver safety and meet environmental standards, they like the story.”

In a presentation on perceptions of animal welfare to the recent Platinum Primary Producer (PPP) conference in Australia, Allflex livestock monitoring group manager Amanda Doughty spoke of research which shows attitudes to animal welfare tend to be divided based on age and gender – younger people and women tend to care more about animal welfare, while older men are less likely to be concerned. But whoever the audience, the issue is ultimately emotional, and science will never win against emotions.

Of relevance are the lessons on effectively communicating on contentious issues. Doughty used the animal welfare debate as a reminder that you can’t have a discussion where one person is talking about science and the other about ethics. They are completely different conversations. Which is dominating the public debate at the moment? Lain Jager’s comment that “We need to win over hearts first, then minds” goes a long way to answering that question.

Before packing away facts, figures and grumpy faces though, there are certain circumstances where grizzling and complaining still works. It won’t be around unfavourable economic outcomes, or environmental challenges, as has been identified above, but under the current Government at least, where policy settings are having negative social outcomes.

The disquiet over the impact of the Government’s billion trees programme and associated planting incentives has been bubbling away for some time. Farmers and industry spokespeople had attempted to raise the consequences but initially had little traction when arguments against the policy were focused on the potential loss of export earnings from red meat and contradicting the idea that NZ should be producing more food.

When the media started focusing on the social impact on rural communities and services, particularly when concerns were raised by mayors in regions deemed to be most affected by land sales, the Forestry Minister Shane Jones responded by saying he would get officials to investigate whether policy settings required any changes. This may come to nothing, but the pause for thought did come about through effective lobbying.

This shouldn’t be seen as a justification to double-down on complaining though. Farmers need to think carefully about the potential to make matters worse.

Given that consumers are the only ones with potential to put money into the value chain, this is probably not the most strategically astute approach.

Adams shares farmers despair but said if you hang out in Europe where NZ venison is sold at premium prices, you will see consumers are increasingly particular about what they want to see wrapped around products they buy.

“Disappoint them at your peril.” A DINZ marketing representative from Europe noted consumers now expect their meat to be only farmed on marginal land, and not areas that could be in crop production.

It’s not easy for farmers to say “how high” when consumers say “jump”.