Farmers and ranchers at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 90th annual meeting were encouraged to speak out and become activists for agriculture.

“We can’t think of the word ‘activists’ as a dirty word anymore,” said Will Gilmer, a third-generation dairyman from Lamar County, AL. “We have to be proactive, aware and informed about our industry and what others are saying about us. It’s going to take all of us to be active.”

Gilmer’s activism takes the form of maintaining the family farm’s web site, which includes an “E-dopt a Cow” program, and writing a blog that explains what goes on at a dairy farm. He said he could reach more people through the Internet than he can in rural Alabama.

Gilmer was joined by Chris Chinn, a hog producer from Clarence, MO, and Michelle Ganci, a livestock/poultry consultant from Clovis, CA, on a panel discussion on the issue of animal agriculture. The three shared their different experiences in becoming active in speaking out for agriculture.

“We need to share with people why we do the things the way we do,” Chinn said. “We need to share with our neighbors that we’re just like them, and we have a story to tell.”

The panel shared their experiences in working on the AFBF’s Ag Challenges initiative, which is designed to help livestock producers become more effective in sharing the experiences of their farm operations.

Rather than just contributing complaints to the discussion or simply being a source of information, farmers and ranchers need to engage in conversations and share experiences with neighbors, civic groups and users of social media.

“Address a community organization; show them a photo of your family and farm, and help people connect to us,” Chinn said.

Chinn noted that everyday situations, such as standing in the check-out line in the supermarket or talking to elementary school classes, are opportunities for farmers and ranchers to share an accurate picture of agriculture.

Michelle Ganci, a self-described “foot soldier” in California shared her experiences from working on the “Vote No” campaign of California Proposition 2. Despite the initiative passing in California, Ganci said there were lessons that could be learned.

“We did a lot of things right, but we did a lot of things dreadfully wrong. We’re now paying the price for not going out there early enough to tell our story,” Ganci, who noted that the opposition was buying ads before the “vote no” campaign was even organized.

Ganci encouraged farmers and ranchers to share their experiences of caring for animals because experiences share emotion whereas relying solely on science does not come across as caring.

“Take this as an opportunity to evaluate your farming operation, and ask yourself, ‘are we really doing the best we can?” Ganci said. “Take a look at what the opposition is doing and invest in proactive messaging. We always need to be telling our story. Get active and become an activist.”