Troy Hadrick says he will never forget the date December 23, 2003.
The cattle rancher from South Dakota in the central northern United States was in town for a pre-Christmas haircut when breaking news flashed across the barber shop television.
He knew in an instant the news was devastating for his industry: A cow in Washington State had been diagnosed with BSE.
“Pretty much our world fell apart over the next few days,” he recalls.
“We immediately lost all of our trading partners, everything shut down, and people were saying some awful nasty things about the beef that we produce.
“And it was really tough, I’m not going to lie to you.”
Just as US producers were starting to get back on their feet, another blow came in 2008 in the form of a video that received national media attention across the United States.
The footage showed a dairy cow in California being pushed around in a packing plant by a forklift.
Animal rights groups had sat on the footage for three months to ensure its release had maximum effect, Mr Hadrick said.
“They waited until it got closer to an election in California where they had a ballot initiative that was going to restrict the way you raise livestock in the states.
“It led to the biggest beef recall in the history of the United States – 143 million pounds was recalled and they had to dump it into landfill to get rid of it because of that video.”
“It was kind of like the world was crashing down around you.”
“We know that is not the norm, we know these are very isolated incidents, but yet we still have to deal with them.”
As northern cattle producers in Australia struggle to come to terms with the loss of a major market to Indonesia, Mr Hadrick and his wife Stacy used their keynote address at Tuesday's Meat Profit Day at Eidsvold to offer advice on what they did when confronted with similar circumstances three years ago.
The devastating effect of the dairy cow video on the US meat industry prompted the Hadricks to start looking around at what other people were saying about agriculture, and they said they were shocked by what they found.
For example, the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was running video clips on its website stating that cattle were fully conscious when processed in meat works. “We know that with the stunning process the animal is not fully conscious, but the issue is that 99.9pc of the people watching that video don’t understand that,” Troy said.
Another well-resourced Peta website targeted directly at children also used mis-information about animal farming as part of its campaign to encourage children to become vegetarians. It stated that it took only 600 litres of water a day to produce a vegetable eater’s diet, and 6000 litres of water a day to produce a meat eater’s diet. “We know that is not true, but that is the type of information that people are using to make a decision to become a vegetarian,” Stacy Hadrick said.
Motivated to tell his story, Troy sat down at his computer and wrote a blog. His aim was to reach a wider audience. He wanted to be part of the conversation. He wanted other ranchers to realise what was being said about them, and wanted to explain to consumers that they were making very important decisions based on articles about agriculture that often contained incorrect information.
His blog “Advocates for Agriculture” lit a fire. Within days hundreds had clicked in, and then thousands, and then tens of thousands. He began linking to Facebook and posting alerts to bring other farmers and ranchers up to date on relevant articles and news events.
He also found hundreds of conversations taking place about agriculture on Twitter. He sought out people looking for information about farming and food production and encouraged them talk to “the experts” – the farmers who actually raise their food. “I continue to tell consumers on my social media sites, do not ask Google where your food comes from, Google doesn’t know. Google has never raised any cattle, Google has never planted anything in the ground. Google is not going to feed you.”
Before long, Troy also discovered the power of video technology via YouTube for himself. On February 3, 2010, he read that Australian wine brand Yellowtail had donated $100,000 to the wealthiest animal rights organisation in the world, the Humane Society of the United States. The USHS received donations of more than $100m a year, he said, but less than 1pc of that funding went directly to animal shelters. A large portion of the funding was spent on lobbying campaigns against animal agriculture.
Troy found Yellowtail’s Facebook page and left a comment. “I am a fifth generation American rancher and the actions you are taking today are affecting me and my family’s ability to feed the world,” he wrote.
He encouraged the followers of Advocates for Agriculture on Facebook and Twitter to do the same thing. Within days thousands of others had inundated Yellowail’s page with comments.
But he didn’t stop there. He took the single bottle of Yellowtail wine he had in his house and went out into the paddock. He set a video camera up on a fencepost, and filmed himself pouring the wine onto the ground (see the video here), and encouraged others to do the same thing.
The 54 second video went viral. Requests for media interviews came from Australia. And then on February 18, Yellowtail announced it would never again donate money to an animal rights organisation that used funds for lobbying purposes rather than directly helping animals.
Yellowtail’s agreement with the HSUS was to provide $300,000 over three years. While $100,000 had already been paid, the collective efforts of farmers and ranchers spurred into action by the video prevented $200,000 of that funding.
“The best part about it is that none of us ever left home to do this,” he said. “We didn’t have to fly to Australia and talk to Yellowtail wines. We didn’t have to leave the ranch, and I think that was an incredible lesson we learned about social media there.”
Realising your 'influential power'
The Hadrick’s core message is that people in agriculture have an incredible amount of influence if they choose to use it.
They asked audience members at Tuesday’s Meat Profit Day in Eidsvold to raise their hands if they had attended three or more meetings in the past year. Most had.
Research had shown that the common denominator that sets the 10pc of the population that is most socially and politically active apart from the rest of the population was that most of the first group attended three or more meetings a year.
“Information is power,” Troy said. “All of a sudden when you go to a meeting that someone else didn’t attend, you have information that they don’t have. And they start looking to you for that information.
“Do you see all of a sudden how you are an influential person? All of a sudden you have this ability to transmit this information that you have picked up, and to encourage other people to do what you think is necessary to do what they should be doing.”
Once people recognised their ability to influence others, they could then use their power to make a connection with others and go out and tell a positive story of agriculture.
The Hadricks encouraged people to develop their “30 second elevator speech” to start a conversation with someone about agriculture whenever the opportunity arose. It involves describing who you are, where you’re from, and what your involvement in agriculture is. For example: “Hi, I’m Stacy Hadrick, my family ranch is in north central South Dakota, my family raises the beef that your family eats.”
“When you make that connection with that person and you are honest and passionate about what you do they will pick up on it and they will be passionate about what you do to,” Troy said.
The Hadricks said they learned a painful lesson about what can happen when you let someone else tell your story for you in 2002, when the New York Times visited their ranch under the pretence of writing a positive story about agriculture.
The resulting story tracked the life of a steer from birth through to dinner plate and accused ranchers of polluting the environment, abusing their animals and producing unhealthy food. It sent shockwaves through the entire beef industry in the US and sent calf prices and feeder cattle prices plummeting. Every single consumer who read the article had their perception of the beef industry shifted further from reality, Troy said.
“When we finally got to read the article when it came out on Sunday morning, Stacy and I looked at each other and said we are not ever going to let anybody else tell our story for us ever again.”
Having lived through the devastating experience of market shutdowns and meat recalls, Troy advised Australian producers to focus on the positives.
“Even on those darkest days we have found there is light at the end of the tunnel, and probably our industry continues to be better for it.”
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