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Published January 13, 2014, 09:46 AM

Stokka: Operate as if followed by video camera

Gerald Stokka has been a rural vet, a university professor and a member of the Pfizer Animal Health veterinary operations team. He’s talked with ranchers, consumers and livestock industry officials around the world.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Gerald Stokka has been a rural vet, a university professor and a member of the Pfizer Animal Health veterinary operations team. He’s talked with ranchers, consumers and livestock industry officials around the world.

That long and varied experience has convinced Stokka, now livestock stewardship specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, that ranchers can’t operate as they once did.

“We have a consuming public that’s become suspicious of what we do,” Stokka said. “We’ve lost some of the trust and respect agriculture used to have. That’s not a good place to be.”

“Can we regain the trust and respect? I don’t know. But we’re going to try,” he said.

Stokka spoke Jan. 8 at the annual Lake Region Extension Service Roundup. The two-day event, which began Jan. 7, drew about 700 people. Speakers, primarily from the extension service, commodity groups and private companies, addressed a wide range of topics, including wheat, dry beans, corn, cattle, land rents and precision agriculture.

“We have a pretty common way of thinking and looking at life,” Stokka said. “But if you get too far out of our little culture, you realize people don’t think the same as we do. And it seems like there’s more of them.”

One example of changing attitudes is a recent lawsuit that seeks “legal personhood” for chimpanzees, Stokka said.

The nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project asked a New York state court to declare a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned,” according to Reuters.

“Is that a little bit of a dangerous path to start going down? I think so,” Stokka said.

Changing demographics — 82 percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs — account for at least part of the changing views, Stokka said.

“We’re in the food business. The culture is changing, and we don’t like it,” he said.

Ranchers and livestock officials often try to address the concerns of people outside agriculture by using scientific terms. That approach, however, can cause “a glazed look in their eyes. They have no idea what you’re talking about. They tune you out. Then they go to the Internet to find things they agree with,” Stokka said.

Public viewing

Stokka offered this advice for people in the livestock industry:

Imagine that you hire someone who, unknown to you, is a member of an animal rights group. Also imagine the new employee is secretly using a video camera to record what happens in your operation. Could that employee come across and record something that you would be embarrassed to have shown publicly?

Stokka said livestock producers should always keep this thought in mind as they run their operations:

“Is there a video camera following me?”

Stress and frustration are an inevitable part of dealing with livestock, and sometimes producers, no matter how conscientious, can get angry with animals, he said.

Producers should ask themselves, “‘What’s entrusted to me? Am I being a good steward?’” Stokka said.

Different approach

Stokka said he enjoys visiting with livestock producers. He also said he visits with “other people who have questions about what we do.”

His conversations with people outside agriculture show him that the livestock industry must rethink how it does things, Stokka said.

U.S. livestock producers now need to “begin with the end product in mind,” he said.

That means focusing on long-term relationships, brand identities and new markets, among other things, he said.

Producers need to consider social and environmental factors, as well as economic issues, he said.

U.S. farmers and ranchers also should focus on producing sophisticated goods and services rather than trying to be the least-cost producer, he said.

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