Panel talks the future of the livestock industry at Farmfest

GILFILLAN ESTATE?- Leaders of the livestock industry had a panel discussion at Farmfest on Wednesday at Gilfillan Estate to discuss and answer questions about public perceptions of their livelihood and threats to the industry.

The theme of the panel was “How We Raise our Livestock…Who Should Decide?”

The panel consisted of Randy Spronk, president, National Pork Producers Council; Dallas Hockman, policy analyst, National Pork Producers Council; Dar Giess, president, Minnesota State Cattleman’s Association; Steve Olson, executive director, Minnesota Turkey Growers Association; and Bob Lefebvre, executive director, Minnesota Milk Producers Association. The panel was moderated by Emery Kleven, farm director, Minnesota Farm Network.

A recurring theme throughout the discussion was negative public perceptions of livestock raising, particularly in the areas of genetically modified organisms, use of antibiotics in stock feed, animal housing and pollution.

“I spend most of my time with people who don’t know where food comes from,” Hockman said.

A concern expressed both by panel members and attendees was that decisions on farming practices were being made by legislators with no direct experience of farming, which farmers themselves have relatively little input into.

“Who should decide?” Olson said. “Consumers and customers, but it’s critical they make informed decisions. We need to tell our story. Only two percent of the population across the country are in agriculture, but 20 percent of the workforce in Minnesota is in ag.”

Olson urged everyone to get into social media, Facebook and Twitter and be ready to tell their story.

“In Minnesota, 58 percent of the people don’t know a farmer personally,” Olson said. “In the Twin Cities, 72 percent of the people don’t.”

Lefebvre pointed out huge gains in efficiency made in food production

Since 1944, the carbon footprint of the dairy industry has decreased 67 percent, according to Lefebvre.

“One gallon of milk is produced on 10 percent of the land used in 1944, with 65 percent less water,” Lefebvre said. “Consumers have a right to know how their food is produced, but we need transparency and integrity.”

Spronk warned of the danger to the industry and the national economy from government regulations based on emotional attitudes rather than deep thinking.

“England is 20 years ahead of us in agricultural regulations,” Spronk said. “Twenty years ago, England was food self-sufficient. Now it imports 50 percent of its food.”

Spronk said people in the industry must understand the disproportionate influence of anti-meat activists.

Giess stressed the need for farmers and ranchers to make their case to the public through producer associations.

“In England and Austria, food prices are much higher than the U.S.,” Giess said. “In the UK, ag has no voice. We need affiliated membership to talk to the politicians.”

Other members of the panel echoed the sentiment.

“We’ve done a great job of raising our products,” Hockman said. “We’ve done a poor job of raising our voice.”