Confusion reigns in the talk about food because "farmers have been out of the conversation for 20 years," Carrie Mess ("Dairy Carrie" in the social media realm) told her audience at the Kewaunee County dairy promotion committee's kickoff breakfast for 2014 June Dairy Month.
Mess, her husband, Patrick, and his parents operate a 100-cow dairy farm near Lake Mills. She said she was not raised on a farm but had an affinity for animals — an affinity that started with a raccoon and cats and was culminated by "finding my passion" in the love of dairy cows after she talked her way into being hired as a herdswoman on the family's farm after previously working in an office.
The conversation about food has been muddled in recent decades because of the litany of "buzzwords" used by marketers in trying to differentiate their item from others on the store shelf, Mess said. That wording includes such terms as vegan, organic, GMO-free, certified humane, grass-fed, all-natural, hormone-free and even a claim for "gluten-free" butter, she pointed out.
On some of those, Mess noted that all animals have hormones by their very nature, asked if "grass-fed" means that the animal has not consumed anything other than grass and observed there is no connection between butter and gluten. She said that war of words started in the earlier battle between name brand and generic products.
If farmers aren't in the conversation to answer the questions about food, who is answering them? Mess asked. She mentioned Dr. Oz, a "Food Babe" blogger who wielded enough influence to force Subway into some menu changes, and organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States, which she emphasized does not benefit local animal shelters but rather campaigns against animal agriculture.
The remedy is for those who grow food to talk about it, Mess said. "It's time to talk about our food."
One technique — the one through which Mess has gained lots attention since September 2011 — is "to be on the social media about your farm. People trust you," she assured the overflow crowd here. She is "an agvocate" who posts comments and pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This has earned her attention from the Huffington Post and numerous trade publications.
Mess estimated her messages reached 1.1 million people in 2013. She has handled several hot-button topics such as physical abuse of dairy cattle and the use of antibiotics in livestock production. To bolster her point of view, one technique she has used is taking of pictures of aspirin to compare the size scale of drugs used to treat animals and those taken by humans.
For those who do not have or want to use the social media, Mess cited the example of her father-in-law who went to a Kwik Trip convenience store and thanked a woman for buying milk there even though the farm's milk does not go to Kwik Trip. She promised that such gestures would "trump anything on a YouTube video."
It is important to provide "counterpoints to the noise out there," Mess said. To non-farmers, she advised "following farmers on the social media."
Mess also referred to the often-stated prediction that farmers will have to be feeding 9 billion humans by the year 2050. To accomplish that, all food production methods must be pursued and seen as acceptable, she said.
There is no perfect way to handle that predicted challenge, but it can be done "if we work together as an industry," Mess promised. She is willing to share her message with any organizations interested in having her as a guest speaker.