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Ag messages zero in on cities ... and farms

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Paul Willis, founder of Niman Pork Ranch Co., is part of the Humane Society's messaging against hog confinement crates. (Sandhya Dirks forHarvest Public Media)
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Reporter for Iowa Public Radio

Debate surrounding what we eat and how it’s made is nothing new, but in this year of outcry over "pink slime" and gestation crates, the various sides are reaching out in new ways and new places.

Which explains why Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, made his way to a hog farm of  Niman Ranch Pork Co. in Thornton, Iowa, on a steamy late-summer day. Pacelle is on the frontlines of the great crate debate — what hog producers call containment engineered for animal safety, and what the Humane Society calls confinement crates on factory farms.

Niman Ranch founder Paul Willis was on hand to guide Pacelle and make the case for why he doesn’t use gestation crates.

“I went in one of those buildings once, an early one,” Willis said. “And I thought if this is the way to raise pigs, I’m not doing it.”

By releasing videos depicting stomach-turning scenes from confinement operations, Pacelle and the Humane Society have been successful in getting fast food restaurants like McDonalds and food providers like Sysco to promise not to carry pork produced in confinement farms. Now, as witnessed by this trip to Iowa, Pacelle is taking his message directly to farm country.

“With all of these retailers saying that they don’t want any part of that in the future, it’s inevitable,” Pacelle said. “It’s now just a question of ‘Are we going to have an orderly transition or are we going to continue have a fight about it?’”

Hugh Whaley is the head of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), a coalition of farmers and ag groups who came together two years ago to advocate for farm interests. Whaley said his organization believes that there are many different ways to farm, and none should be excluded from the conversation.

“We will be more than happy to sit down and discuss food, food production with any individual that recognizes the need and the right for all forms of production agriculture to exist,” Whaley said. “By and large, we were not being asked to enter and engage in the conversation about food.

Whaley said food producers have been misrepresented and the food industry is partially to blame – for too long the knee-jerk reaction of those in agriculture and agro-business was to close ranks. Whaley said they can’t continue to keep silent.

Journalist Michael Pollan agrees.

“What’s happened in the food industry is that the way food was produced has disappeared for about 40 years from public view,” Pollan said. “Only people who grew the food knew how it was grown. And now there’s a great deal of interest. So these people feel they have the hot breath of the eater looking over their shoulder and that’s making them really uncomfortable.”

Pollan is the one of the voices that helped fuel that hot breath, first as a reporter for the New York Times and now as the author of books such as “The Omnivore's Dilemma.”  He said it only makes sense – conventional food is a multibillion dollar industry and they’ve taken a hit from bad publicity.

“Basically, they feel that shutting up has not served them well and that letting people like me and these humane activists tell their stories is worse than letting – them giving interviews and telling their own stories,” Pollan said.

That’s why USFRA is hosting events -- called Food Dialogues -- not in the heartland, but on the coasts, in places like Los Angeles and, most recently, New York.

USFRA also is training farmers on how to talk with the media. Iowa farmer Stacey Pellet participated in training in San Francisco.

“I’m well educated in talking with people, but what they really taught me was how to understand where they are coming from, and the position – or the viewpoint that they have – and to find something that is relatable to where I am coming from so that we can meet on common ground,” Pellet said. “Because really, I don’t think that in most cases were on such opposite sides of the fence.”

As Pellet drove around her family’s farm, she explained that her biggest tool is to talk from personal experience, as a mother and a farmer. She said that the people who criticize farmers often don’t understand what it means to make food.

“People sometimes think of it as a corporate environment, or if you get large you are no longer a family farm,” Pellet said. “But we are a family farm whether we farm 10 acres or 10,000 acres.”

Farmer Paul Willis, meanwhile, said agri-business hasn’t just changed relationships with consumers, it's changed how farmers think about farming.

“A lot of these skills are passed from one generation to the next,” Willis said. “I’ve actually had agriculture classes of farm kids, we had a group of about 20, and none of these kids all grown up on a farm had ever seen a pig  outdoors before. So that’s a concern.”

As both sides of the food debate aim their message at the other side, how food is made in the future will depend on the next generation of famers and the next generation of eaters.