It’s no secret that farming requires a wider array of talents and skills than any other profession, and for most farmers, it all comes rather natural. To survive in this business for any length of time, you must become proficient at any number of vocations – agronomy, engineering, economics, entomology, meteorology…the list goes on and on.
But one skill that doesn’t come so natural to most farmers is public relations, especially as it must be practiced from time to time in response to people who don’t always understand agriculture.
At the same time, it’s a skill that’s becoming more and more of a necessity, for several reasons. There’s ever-increasing urban encroachment, which can mean a shotgun wedding between country and city folk, and complexities when it comes to farm tasks such as spreading poultry manure or making aerial applications. Also, living in the country now appears to be in vogue, with some city dwellers fleeing the crime and traffic of their own neighborhoods to enjoy the “good life” offered in less-populated areas. These are the folks who consider four-wheel-drive trucks to be more of a status symbol than a workhorse, and who don’t restrict the wearing of camouflage to hunting excursions.
A further consideration when it comes to finessing relationships with those who might not be so understanding of certain agricultural practices is that some are more knowledgeable today than in the past about regulations and such, and whenever they complain they do so waving a stack of papers and threatening to notify the authorities, retain legal counsel, or, even worse, alerting the local media about a real or perceived transgression.
According to Kent Stafford, a specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the people who are complaining now are not the same people who were complaining 10 years ago – they are smarter. “Those who are complaining now know what the rules say, they know the things people are supposed to be doing, and they’re willing to hold them accountable if they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing,” he says.
Speaking to a group of crop consultants meeting recently on the Auburn University campus, Stafford was referring primarily to farmers who spread poultry litter on their land, but his advice could be taken well by all growers.
He listed a number of “public relations considerations,” including the following:
-Think before you act. In other words, use common sense.
-Communicate appropriately. Work with those who live nearby whenever you’re doing something that might affect them, such as spreading poultry litter and causing a smell for a couple of days.
-Be reasonable and rational. If someone is having a family reunion or a wedding in their backyard, don’t spread litter or do anything else that would cause a disruptions. Your neighbors will be unhappy, and whenever they’re unhappy, they start trying to figure out how to do something about it. That leads to action on their part.
-Follow the rules. Do what the rules say, and cover your own rear end.
-Document your actions, assuming they’re the right actions.
-Put yourself in your neighbor’s place. How would you feel if you were in your neighbor’s house, and you were doing the things you’re doing in that particular field? Sometimes, given the chance to do things over, we probably would have done them differently.
-Do the right thing. That’s the bottom line.
If someone who lives near you is unhappy with something you’re doing, Stafford says the most important thing is to make sure all of your bases are covered.
“Are you prepared, and do you have documentation so that if an inspector shows up – or even if a local television reporter shows up – that you’ll be okay? That’s the challenge,” he says.