Crisis on the farm...Now what?

Colleen Kottke Associate Editor
Now Media Group


With many CAFOs already in the crosshairs of the media, the last thing that most farmers want to do is conduct an interview in front of a group of reporters – especially while in the throes of a crisis on the farm.

"There are stories of drones following manure spreaders down the road, recording everything that farmer does," University of Wisconsin Extension Educator Kevin Erb told a large crowd gathered at the 2016 annual CAFO Meeting Update at UW-Fond du Lac. "Given the recent issues and videos that show only one side of the story, we in the ag industry need to be prepared to deal with a crisis if it occurs."

While every farm should develop a Crisis Management Plan (CMP) that contains protocol for communicating with the media in the event of a crisis, Winnebago County UW-Extension Agricultural Agent Darrell McCauley said it's important to build relationships with those living around the farm way in advance.

"It begins in your neighborhood. There's a lot that you can do to prevent misperceptions within that group of people who interact with your farm on a daily basis," said McCauley. "Stop by and drop off a card with a contact number on it so they have someone they can call with concerns. It's connecting with those people and building a relationship."

Some area CAFOs have gone the extra mile to build goodwill with their neighbors, including handing out carwash tokens to residents as a way to acknowledge tracking mud on the road during planting and harvest season or dumping a fresh load of gravel on a farm driveway as a means to cut down on debris entering roadways.

"That creates a positive environment," McCauley said.

Addressing the media

However, a catastrophic manure spill, legal dispute, accident or manmade disaster that can be attributed to the farm, can place the integrity and reputation that farm in jeopardy.

"This can be made worse if the public or media perceives that you did not react to a situation in an appropriate manner," McCauley said. "So it's important that this be handled correctly and in a way to minimize any potential damage."

Long before a crisis arises, McCauley recommends that the farm assemble a team of people to deal with the situation. One person should serve as the spokesman throughout the crisis.

"That's the person answering calls promptly and dealing with the media," McCauley said. "The biggest mistake a farm can make is ignoring or trying to hide the incident from the public."

McCauley said it's key for the spokesperson to deliver a prepared statement that addresses the basic information regarding the event as soon as possible.

"It's your opportunity to take control of the message. But it's also important to convey your concern for the public and your employees. Remember, your employees are watching this, too and they're more than likely to be contacted by the media to get their side of the story," McCauley said. "You also want to show that you've resolved to fix the problem. However, share only what it known and don't speculate, lie, deny or blame someone else."

McCauley also noted that farms should set up a media center location and escort media to a safe, controlled area in the case of an ongoing event such as a fire or natural disaster.

"Of course, you don't want them wandering around, but you do want them to be able to see where the event is happening," McCauley said. "Don't take them away from the situation where they can't see or they might think you're hiding something and they'll lose confidence in you."

It's also critical to leave all media interviews for the farm's primary spokesperson.

"It's about being clear with your message and being organized," McCauley said.

To access a template of a Crisis Management Plan visit

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