Operation Main Street expands influence over pandemic
Operation Main Street is a speakers bureau for the National Pork Board that trains pig farmers, vets and other ag professionals to give presentations about pork producing to the public. OMS turned into being a primarily virtual experience over the pandemic, including a live barn tour at South Dakota State University, which focuses on vet students, dietitians, nurses and high value civic groups.
DES MOINES, Iowa ― Operation Main Street, a speakers bureau for the National Pork Board, has been operating for 17 years and began with around a dozen pork producers. Today, it features over 1,000, and its reach is from coast to coast.
The World Pork Expo this year was a "reboot" for some of those presenters, said Al Eidson.
Eidson is the owner and president of Eidson and Partners, a virtual company that started to work with the National Pork Board in 2004 on Operation Main Street, which trains and deploys farmers and swine veterinarians as public speakers.
Eidson said the program started 17 years ago with a launch class of around a dozen speakers. A curriculum was developed for the members and events were scheduled for them in their communities in places such as civic groups and high school culinary classes.
"And the outcome was that many of those speakers really fell in love with the idea of being a spokesperson for the pork industry," Eidson said.
Since then, OMS has grown to about 1,400 trained members, Eidson said, and 142 of those members are swine veterinarians. He said the program has a "great working relationship" with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.
"Today, the program is nationwide with virtual presentations coast to coast," Eidson said.
The training sessions that took place at the World Pork Expo earlier this month were a "refresher," said Eidson, because the pandemic prevented the group from having the chance to regroup on curriculum.
Preliminary data has been gathered on OMS from the last 16 months, said Eidson. There have been presentations in 40 states in that time, he said, and around 200 presentations outside of the pork producing states.
"We've found that audiences outside the pork producing states have virtually no visibility, or no idea about pork production," he said. "And very few preconceived notions, positive or negative."
He said from about 8,000 audience evaluations they've gathered, OMS is proving to be a success in education for those audiences.
"Directionally, we feel like there's a great opportunity to speak to audiences of all sorts: dietitians, nurses, nutrition educators — really across the country," Eidson said. "And in the important cities and metro markets, we've had a good reception from community and civic groups, who are interested in the idea of where does food come from."
Eidson said the overall goal of the training is to "set the story straight" on pork producing.
"We think what unifies them is the idea of setting the story straight," Eidson said. "Of just telling what the industry is doing right, helping explain the basics and the importance of keeping animals healthy and antibiotic usage, and make it in our straightforward, commonsense way where anybody could understand."
For example, one lesson learned through OMS courses is why South Dakota pigs need to be raised indoors, instead of outside on pasture.
"The lowest recorded temperature in South Dakota is negative 68. And you only have to hear that one number to say, 'Wow, they've got to be in barns,'" he said. "So it seems counter logical to a person who's unfamiliar, why would you put them inside? Why aren't they outdoors, just the way Disney depicted them? And that's not the real world, right? Negative 68 is a number you can't miss or ignore.
"So we think that it provides a kind of commonsense understanding of pork production without being wildly technical. And that's our intent."
Eidson said that going virtual as a result of the pandemic really opened OMS up to reaching new audiences and getting to a bigger scale.
"Going virtual has given us a second level of penetration," he said.
OMS has a four-year agreement with South Dakota State University, which Eidson said he hopes "lasts forever."
"We use their port research facility, and we hire undergraduate and graduate students to conduct virtual barn tours," he said. "Which we can pipe live into a meeting and have an audience, say of dietitians, speak to a student in the barn and understand how animals are raised. And we're using that nationwide."
Rachel Endecott is an employee of Eidson and Partners and a member of the Operation Main Street Program.
Endecott is a native Montanan who has worked as the Extension beef cattle specialist for Montana State University as well as at American Simmental Association.
Through a contact at a social media conference, Endecott was introduced to the opportunity to help train speakers and give virtual presentations about pig farming to consumer groups and folks across the nation.
At the World Pork Expo, Endecott was one of the leaders walking speakers through their first in-person training session since the pandemic began last March. A lot has changed about OMS in that time, she said.
"It used to be in-person presentations with an LCD projector," Endecott said. "We've now evolved to the ability to have a virtual barn tour at South Dakota State University, as well as have both our speakers and our audiences be virtual so we can kind of take it anywhere across the U.S. and beyond."
Endecott said the the virtual presentations give OMS a "movie night flavor."
"We've had on a Friday night a great turnout at a group, we've got spouses coming in, kids coming in to watch and listen to the pig barn tour at South Dakota State," she said of the varieties of presentation crowds.
One of her favorite audience members was a mom tuning in from her cellphone while at her child's soccer practice.
"So she had kids hanging over her shoulder, checking out what was going on with the pig farm tour and kids in soccer uniforms running behind her in the background.
"So that virtual opportunity lets us reach people in all kinds of different locations, and it's easy for them to tune into us."
Both Endecott and Eidson agree that it's the quality of the speakers, many of whom are successful farmers, that make OMS the special program it is.
"Operation Main Street speakers are a pioneering group," Endecott said. "We've had a wonderful response; over 80 different speakers have already jumped into the virtual pool, as it were, and have given us a virtual presentation."