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Published May 12, 2014, 09:37 AM

Battling agriculture's critics

Two recent experiences have left me shaking and scratching my head about how farmers battle critics and phantoms.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Two recent experiences have left me shaking and scratching my head about how farmers battle critics and phantoms.

First, I recently was invited by the North Dakota State University collegiate organization of the North Dakota Farm Bureau to cover guest speaker Greg Peterson, one of the three farming, cattle-raising brothers from central Kansas who have become internet sensations. The Peterson Brothers produce farming parody videos, with such hits as “I’m Farming and I Grow It.”

Peterson, a good-natured Kansas State University agricultural communications graduate, and his brothers have used their musical talent and sense of humor to entertain YouTube viewers with their bale-jumping, cattle-feeding antics. The Petersons also produce more educational videos and some purely “entertainment” snippets that are simple sight gags.

A whopping 30 million people have viewed these internet pieces. About 15.2 million hits came on “Farmer Style,” that parodied “Gangnam Style,” a South Korean pop culture sensation in 2012. Peterson spends about a third of his time on the road speaking. He sells T-shirts and this summer will hold farm tours. A sense of humor goes a long way.

NDSU students listening to Peterson referred to the animosity the public has about farmers, and how they can fight the negative images in the media today, including an internet animation called “Scarecrow,” promoted by Chipotle.

A week later, I was in an invitation-only viewing of the movie “Farmland,” a documentary-style, 77-minute production. It featured six 20-something farmers from around the country, including one from southwest Minnesota and one from Nebraska.

This movie is financed by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a collection of some 80 agricultural commodity groups and other biggies such as technology and seed powerhouse Monsanto. The USFRA has been trying to use social media and various “dialogue” efforts to engage or re-engage ordinary Americans.

It’s unclear who the audience is for this piece. (Who Googles the word farmland? Urbanites?)

Regardless, “Farmland” promotes some of the stereotypically fine qualities in farmers — the family heritage, the hard work, the lifelong body of knowledge. The farmers themselves talk about things in the news — GMOs, organic-versus-conventional and animal welfare. I blogged about the movie (positively) and caught disappointment from the movie promoters when I suggested — figuratively — that it was a good advertisement for farmers.

What did “real” movie critics say? The Los Angeles Times: “comes off like lobbyist propaganda;” Variety: “good looking 77 minutes of propaganda is heavy on sugar-coating and light on nutritional value;” Christian Science Monitor: “too much of this film is as dry as a high school classroom presentation.”

I’m no movie critic, but I’ll speak directly to my many farmer friends: Relax. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet about the “negativity” surrounding “conventional” agriculture, even from some of the hired guns who are paid to protect you. And watch what your customers do, not what they say.

If you’re a conventional farmer, remember that organic sales (sold at a premium) account for about 4 percent of U.S. food sales by value. If you’re in the livestock biz, remember the U.S. is the fifth-leading meat consumer on the planet. Vegetarian Journal says only 3 percent of Americans never eat meat, and only 1 percent are vegan. That means they won’t eat dairy, eggs or honey.

For anyone psyched out about a three-minute Chipotle ad, here’s something to think about: A Washington Post columnist said the restaurant’s “depressing” message made a friend feel like they wanted to “never eat again.” I don’t see how that sells burritos, but it makes me feel better about the movie “Farmland.”

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