Food For Thought: Should we run away from Labels?


There are lots of negative terms that those outside of agriculture use to label farmers when they want to depict us in a negative light.  Factory farms, industrial farms, pink slime and big ag are a few of the negative terms I often hear anti modern agriculture groups use to slander today’s farmers.

Today Feedstuffs Foodlink posed a question I have asked several others over the past year:

is it possible to recapture the term “factory farm” and refocus it to be a positive rather than negative term?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of trying to re-own this term?

I definitely have a few thoughts on this subject but am interested in hearing

others thoughts below in the comments.Should we continue to run away from the negative terms and allow others to define them and continue to capture the search engine optimization (SEO) as they become accepted in popular culture?


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  1. Mike Haley says:

    Such a lively conversation over at Feedstuffs FoodLink today I wrote a post to encourage more discussion! What's your thoughts, should we run away from negative labels?

  2. I often tag my posts/photos/video with “factory farm” “cafo” etc. It is a good SEO trick that can drive traffic. On the flip side people can also benefit from keywords such as “local foods” “sustainable farm” “family farm”etc. People are not searching “modern farm’ We need to use their language to start the conversation on familiar terms.

  3. Sorry this is blog length!

    I could be wrong about this – I don’t have a marketing degree after all – but I think your energy is better focused on speaking personally about the issues that matter to consumers (and whether you like it or not, to the issues that activists perhaps inflate). Draw back the curtain and provide transparency. “Pink slime” and “meat glue” and “ag gag laws” are black eyes because they indicate the food industry is, or appears to be, hiding things. Maybe you’re not hiding anything, but the perception is there.

    Responding to consumer concern with a video of a farmer on the tailgate of a pickup claiming he is a “family farmer” providing potatoes for McDonald’s is just not convincing because it does not address ANY of the concerns people have. “Family farmer” is not a term that means anything and saying you are one is nice, but not persuasive.

    People don’t care whether you’re a family farmer; they care what your processes are.

    People wouldn’t object to you being a factory farmer if they understood and trusted your processes.

    This occurred to me recently. Consumers also don’t separate their vitriol toward farmers from their vitriol toward agrichemical companies and our government regulatory agencies. Farmers get lumped in with all the other players in “big ag”. And frankly, you are just using the tools that these companies and our regulators tell you are allowed and safe. They say GMOs and pesticides and herbicides and antibiotics are safe, so you use them. Why wouldn’t you? Consumer concern is at its root focused on the safety of these tools, not really on farmers per se. The trouble is, farmers are the ones using the tools.

    So farmers have to defend the safety of these tools.

    What if farmers were to acknowledge that consumers are not yet convinced? *Maybe the tools are safe, but like it or not, consumers are not convinced.* So suppose farmers were to stand up to regulators and researchers and chemical companies and say, “Hey, we need to convince consumers better that these things are safe. Would you please do some transparent, independently funded research that will convince them? We're not going to implement X until you convince consumers it's ok.”.

    Siding with consumers like this would sure get their attention. And suddenly it wouldn’t matter whether you’re a factory farm or not. You’d be advocating for consumers instead of trying to convince consumers.

    Pie in the sky, I guess.

    In any case, the labels don't matter; the processes do.

    – Grant

    • Mike Haley says:

      Good perspective Grant! At heart I am a family farmer by all means, but I understand that several practices I use on my farm can be considered "industrial farm" practices by others. When I started talking to Ellen and yourself I did so admitting I was an industrial farmer, I often wonder if I would have introduced myself as a family farmer if the conversation would have went a different way as it could have looked like I was deceptive or perhaps was doing things in a better manner than the farms that were industrial. Any thoughts from you or Ellen on this?

    • First off, and this is hugely important, it was not your label that stood out for us when you first posted on Ellen's blog, it was your tone and your willingness to listen.

      Had you introduced yourself as a "family farmer" it would have rung hollow. I understand fully that it is important to you, but we had just been to a breakfast where EVERYONE introduced themselves as family farmers. That's ok and it's nice that they are, but again, it does NOT speak to their practices. Identifying yourself as a family farmer is fine, but it will never be informative.

      What is your definition of a 'family farmer', by the way? That the farm was previously in your family and passed down for one or more generations? And perhaps that you have current family members working it with you (but not exclusively worked by family)? I need to hear your definition!

      There is a growth of small, organic, diversified farms coming up and many of them are started by first-time farmers. They are NOT family farms. But they resonate with consumers. Why? Their practices. The fact that consumers meet them in person at markets. The fact that their product is clearly identifiable as from that given farm. The fact that they are nearby and part of the community and local economy. These are things that resonate with consumers right now. You will need to find ways to tap into those interests.

      – Grant

    • Mike Haley says:

      Good question! The definition of family farm can definately vary, to me it's a farm that is operated mainly by family members, they can have employees that help as well but family members must be involved in the day to day work as well as the decision making on the farm.

      I agree that most individuals respond well to the face to face interactions they can have from farmers who direct sell their products, but in all reality this is not always possible. How is a farmer in central Nebraska supposed to find a local customer when he has to drive over an hour just to get to his local grocery store? also very limited in what crops he can grow due to climate and lack of water…. I guess what I am saying is we all try to do the best we can given the resources available to us within our marketplace.

    • Thanks for the definition!

      I fully agree you don't have face-to-face etc as options. What I mean by bringing them up is that they are the things you are competing against. And I don't yet have an answer for you. I just think it's something to think about. And I'm not sure 'family farmed' as a label competes against these things.

      – Grant

  4. Suzie Wilde says:

    Grant has vocalized what I have been in the process of recognizing recently. As a farmer, who abides to very strict regulations on the usage of approved pesticides, herbicides and other technology, I was confused at the anger and even hatred I faced from some of those in this giant conversation in which we find ourselves. I just kept wondering, “The things we use have all been approved for usage by our government. What am I doing so wrong?”

    But when I started listening, really listening, I understood what Grant has so precisely stated. Many consumers want more information, more research, more science, more conversation. I couldn’t agree more. As I look for all the same information, research, science and conversation that other consumers (remember, I am also a consumer) are looking for, I see where their frustration comes from. It’s hard to follow all the trails, to follow all the money behind research, all the motivations behind misleading articles. It takes time, which most of us have precious little of to spare on such things.

    Out here on the farm, we can’t hide what we do. You can’t pull a curtain shut when you pull the tractor or the spray rig or the harvester out there. Everything we do is out in the open for all to see. The problem with that is that most all Americans don’t live where they can see anything happening on the farm. So it is a mystery to them. We wouldn’t use anything unlabeled or unproven or unregulated on our farm. You can go to jail for doing those things. But we have found out in this giant conversation that there are mountains of questions about our labeled, proven and regulated practices.

    I can totally deal with this! Name calling, slander, mistrust, hatred, now that is hard to deal with. Let’s get these questions answered, concerns alleviated, fears quieted. Name calling, labeling, ignoring, yelling…seems it was all necessary for the real conversation to begin. I want to promise anyone listening to me that I will be one of those farmers that will start to get you your answers, deal with your concerns. Like I said, I can deal with that. In fact, I embrace that.

  5. Mike, I just posted this on the original question Feedstuffs Foodlink posted on FB. I must admit this conversation surprises me. It's not the farmers' fault that consumers have a negative association with these terms. However, the fact remains that they do. Call it anything you like, but when you have a choice of how to talk about yourselves and your operations to consumers, why would you want to use terms that consumers already view as negative? Choose your battles. Don't die on this hill. What am I missing here? Is it mainly the SEO you're worried about? In that case, are there other ways around that issue?

    • Mike Haley says:

      Aimee Whetstine, Its not necessarily the SEO as there are ways to still capture that with META tags on the post and pictures like Emily points out below.

      My main thoughts are that these terms are already being used to describe a lot of our practices. When we talk to others outside of agriculture a lot of times they begin to understand why we use some of the practices they had concerns with on our farm, the thing is if we try to differentiate ourselves from a factory or industrial farm we can be seen as one of the better farmers and most of the other farms they hear about are industrial and like a factory and may not be as concerned about the issues as the "family farmer". Feedstuffs FoodLink made an excellent example of how she met somebody that recently visited Fair Oaks Farms and was so impressed that that family farm was doing things the right way, unlike those factory farms…

      I think I am starting to babble so will quit with that thought.

  6. Suzie, thanks! You put it very well too and it's so nice to be in agreement!

    – Grant

  7. Hey, Mike. I can't seem to log back onto the Just Farmers site, so I don't know if this will post there or not. Thanks for your response. That makes more sense. That you want consumers to know most farms are doing things the right way, not just the few farms that don't call themselves factory farms? Yes?

    • Mike Haley says:

      Sorry about the login deal… trying to figure out all these new settings!

      I think you are on the right track, I guess my thoughts on this subject are not to show that most farms are doing things the right way but more to show that just because somebody may label me as industrial it dont mean that I cant still be doing things the right way. To some that may mean the same thing but I think there is a bit of a difference, especially from the outside looking in.

      The whole key is not what we think of ourselves, but how others view us when we are talking to them. Sure we view ourselves as family farmers, but when we speak up as family farmers others see us as defending practices that they dont associate with family farmers and to some that can make us look less honest or even paid off by the industry (yeah, I was accused of that just the other day).

    • It's complicated. No easy answers. Keep on telling it, Mike. Thanks for letting me in on the conversation!

  8. My definition of a Family Farmer has nothing to do with size of the farm or years on the farm. If a family works on, loves and operates a farm for a year or 150 years, one acre or 1000 acres, that's a Family Farm. What's not a family farm are farms operated by absentee management firms, financial institutions, municipalities, universities. We should all want to keep families, no matter the size of the family, on the land. The term Family Farmer to me means a way of life. The other terms, like industrial farming, describe methods. So when I introduce myself as leading a way of life with my family on a farm, it's the truth. Do I sell produce at a farmers market? No, I sell cotton to make your blue jeans. Does my farming resonate with folks looking for tomatoes at their local farmers market? I don't know, but I bet they are wearing blue jeans!

  9. Mike, in your conversation with Aimee, are you hinting at the idea that you'd like to get beyond the two-tiered farmer definitions most folks have?

    A) small, diverse, organic, biodiversified, beyond organic selling locally and mostly direct.

    B) very large, owned and operated by someone who is not a "family" and sold as a non-differentiated commodity.

    And you'd like to add and define:

    C) your model.

    That could have legs. Define it, differentiate it and maintain that branding to market.

    – Grant

    • Mike Haley says:

      Perhaps this is part of the problem, most of us in ag don't see a two tiered model even though we realize perception may be that way. I will have to think about this more.

    • Ray Prock says:

      My brain is on overdrive thinking this all through, maybe I can get my thoughts into another post.

    • Jeff Fowle says:

      I've been digesting this idea after a few emails with Ellen. Need a bit more defining, but I've come up with a C) & D)…recognizing diversity in production & meeting the needs of customers. I'll try to beat Ray to the blog on this one…if I can 😉

    • Mike Haley says:

      Jeff, in the end are they all not just farmers in all this diversity of big and small?

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