Ag businesses must take the lead in the face of public perception

Gloria Hafemeister
Tom Thibodeau, Director of Viterbo University’s Master of Arts in Servant Leadership Program, Dr. Richard Kyte, Director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University, Dr. Frank Mitloehner, Air Quality Extension Specialist University of California, Davis; and Bruce Vincent, third generation logger from Montana teased out the moral and ethical obligations while discussing ways to maintain and improve resources for the next generation.

WISCONSIN DELLS – Environmental leaders shed light on ways dairy producers can take the lead in calming the public's fears about the impact of the industry on the environment.

A thoughtful group of leaders in the environmental arena led the opening session at this year’s Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin annual conference in Wisconsin Dells, highlighting trends and opportunities with renewable energies. 

The message: lead rather than react to concerns.

“With vision and leadership there is hope,” says Bruce Vincent, a third-generation logger from Montana who said his family’s farm could have been put out of business had he and others in his state not taken the lead in environmental issues rather than following.

He described how dairy producers can lead the movement to show the public they care about the environment rather than react to the criticisms.

“Rural cultures need a trusted ‘human face’ to share our story over the back-yard fence.  That face is yours,” Vincent said.

He spoke of understanding the expressed concerns of the public and assuring the public that the dairy industry is listening. Vincent also stressed the need to have advocacy as part of the farm’s business plan, using tools that are available such as PDPW’s leadership programs, field tours on Earth Day, celebrations of progress through the Ag in the Classroom programs.

Vincent reflected on his early reaction to the public’s outcry about the logging industry. “As a logger I was pleased that the public wanted to ‘save the forest’. The truth was on our side so how could we possibly lose?”

However, the public’s “truth” and public policy is not always defined by the business owner's reality, but rather is defined by the public’s perception of reality.

“When we engage the pubic, our social license was debated and we lost the debate. We confused fighting with leading,” he said.

Had he and others in the logging business not changed their tactics they would have been put out of business because the movement was operating with the wrong information and the loggers were not leading.

“The environmental social movement had been hijacked and turned into an industry dependent upon crisis and conflict and a lot of money,” he says.  “We inadvertently participated in their ‘eco-conflict’ industry and in their business strategy.”

Soon logging families like Vincent’s learned the importance of leading with the correct information. He and the others who owned timber land needed to figure out the true definition of leading. 

He listed the criteria: Democracy works but it’s not a spectator sport; when people lead, leaders follow; the world is run by those who show up.

The timber growers put themselves in the shoes of those who were trying to put them out of business. 

“We stopped blaming the public for buying into the hype and found common ground.  The public ‘loves animals, forests, clean water and air, and safe food. So do we. They want sustainable practices followed. So do we,” he said.

Instead of blaming, they started to lead a discussion to find answers to what they perceived as real problems. U.S. timber communities finally figured out how to lead and the result was the Healthy Forest Initiative. “We are the true environmentalists and we should act like it.”

Stressing the importance of adding advocacy to the farm’s business plan, he notes, “You don’t need to make a wave – be a ripple. Together we will make a wave.”

Rethinking the methane issue

Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D. professor & air quality specialist of the Department of Animal Science, University of California Davis described research that has been done in the dairy industry and the ways dairy farmers can address concerns about methane gas and global warming.

“Dairy digesters have proven to be a cost effective way to reduce methane from manure and digesters have reduced 30% of the greenhouse gases mitigated in the California Climate Investment Initiative with less than 2% state funding,” Mitloehner said.

Furthermore, livestock can be part of a climate solution. “If we reduce methane emissions from livestock we can pull carbon out of the atmosphere," Mitloehner said. "Only two sectors can do this – agriculture and forestry.  Agriculture, and especially livestock, is a climate solution we are not talking about enough.”

Ethical decision-making

Richard Kyte, Ph.D., endowed professor and director of the D.B. Reibhart institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University and Tom Thibodeau, distinguished professor of servant leadership at Viterbo University highlighted methods for ethical decision-making.

Kyte said when making ethical decisions it is important to start with the truth, then consider possible solutions and the consequences of each option, along with fairness.  Finally, consider whether the proposed action is motivated by goodwill and will it be done in a way that helps build trusting relationships.

 Kyte suggests that trust in our key institutions and in others is declining, in part, due to advances in technology that make people less dependent on their neighbors.

“We are not forced into relationships with others and that takes away our trust for others,” he said. “If you learn to lead locally you build trust.”

Thibodeau offered some pointers for becoming a good leader.

Referring to a crisis such as the attacks on the World Trade Center he said, ‘We can all learn a lesson from the responses to the events of 9-11.  Every leader needs to stay calm in a crisis. Live in the eye of a hurricane where it is always calm.”

He also points out, “In a crisis you don’t tell people what they want to hear but what they need to hear.” 

He compares it to talking with a doctor in an emergency room. "The doctor needs to give the truth about what is happening even if it isn’t what the family wants to hear."

Another crisis from the 9-11 response is the importance of finding people before profit and then finally, finding a way to get back to work.

He concluded, “When you step forward you bear the burden, carry the load, and meet the demand. Thank you farmers for doing that.”