It doesn’t matter what industry your business is in, you have probably encountered misperceptions about what you do or what you sell. The problem with misconceptions is that they can be hard to shake. Just like an urban legend, they become beliefs that are assumed to be facts.
Dairy month is a good time for us, as an industry, to consider the stereotypes and misconceptions that affect the dairy industry. A recent discussion on the Milk House started with the question “What is the biggest misperception that you think consumers have about the dairy industry?” The lively discussion that followed highlighted several misperceptions and even noted some responses that could be helpful. The following list is in no particular order.
#10. “Organic Is Better Than Traditional Milk”
Response: Everyone is promoting what makes their product different. Consumers are aware of this and look for points to help them choose between products.” Says Seth Snook, “When organic producers claim no antibiotics no hormones, etc.” it is not intended to hurt the conventional producer but the implication that our products are tainted is damaging.”
#9. “All Large Dairy Farms are Bad”
Misperceptions are not always outside of an industry. For example, even those with hands on in dairying are influenced by the good and bad experiences they have been exposed to. Some, like Dave Puppe, are disappointed by the growth and changes in the industry which leaves them feeling that all large farms are equally bad.
Response: “Painting all big farms with the same brush is playing with the same fire that consumers play with when it comes to farms and livestock in general. It’s safe to say that not all small 40 cow dairies are ethical, and not all big farms are factories.” Sloane Michelle Sanders further clarifies her point, “The general public seems convinced that every farm that has a free stall/parlor environment over a tie stall/pasture set up is abusive. I’ve seen cows flourish in both settings. Look at Luck-E. Kandie hangs out in the free stalls and still looks perfect.
Response: Cliff Shearer gives this definitive answer. “In some ways all farms are ‘factory’ farms and no farms are factory farms. They are all factory farms in the sense that in a contained area ‘ factory ‘ they take a raw product ‘ animal food ‘ and produce a marketable product ‘ milk, beef, eggs, etc. ‘ which is basically how every factory on the planet works. However, none of them are factories because they all deal with animals which makes them into Farms a different thing. No factories are farms because they don’t have livestock, but no farms are factories. To call any farm a factory is misleading – you may as well say General Motors is a farm. It’s just yet another word used by ignorant people to try and devalue what farmers do. I don’t think you can call intensive pig and poultry farms factories – they are still farms – just different systems of farming. Even a 20,000 cow farm is still a farm.”
Response: Ashley Elizabeth Morin weighed in with this considered response. “I would think of a factory as machines producing a product. The work, dedication, time, and effort we put into our livelihoods are what make it a farm. It’s generations of families working together from the past to present to leave an even better tomorrow for our children to carry on. I don’t think the almond milk CEO goes to the factory in the middle of the night because there is a glitch in the system.
You will find the farmer out in the barn, no matter the hour, pulling a calf, iv-ing a cow… the list never stops. That’s the difference to me: the amount of dedication and love it takes to do this every day. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
#8. “Dairy Farmers Mistreat Their Animals”
Response: The cows are what make me money, so there’s no way I could ever abuse them. I think that goes for most dairies in general. The truth is when prices are down, and cuts have to be made, cows still get fed better than me. Always will.” Noting other aspects of animal care, Mark Yeazel and Amber Kilgour report that people are surprised that the cows are not only registered but have names and are recognized by their spots. All respondents agree, “That we couldn’t care less about our animals really makes us angry!”
#7. “Dairy Farmers Are Hands-Off of Everything Except the Profits”
Supporting this position, Dave Puppe declares “I’ve experienced both the smaller and the mega size….the bigger it is, the less respect for the animal….it turns into a factory and the less hands on debate over large farms, Puppe conceded slightly, “I see your point but confining that many cows to concrete and milking them to death is unnatural and wrong……” To which Sanders responds.
Response: “Milking them to death? Define milking them to death because as far as I can tell, most farms only milk 2 or 3 times a day, regardless of size. I’ve also heard of several smaller herds who never let their cows out of their tie stalls EVER for fear of them hurting themselves. They are in the more-desired (to some) setting, and yet they never see pasture either. There’s good and bad to each.”
Sloane Michelle Sanders responds with her personal experience.
Response: “I worked for a farm that milked 1,000 cows. The owner is involved in every single operation on that farm. Every single day, he’s out with the team he’s hired, and can frequently be found out in the barn cutting out cows, pushing them up to the parlor, and on occasion lending an extra set of hands in the parlor.”
#6. “Dairies Heartlessly Separate Cows from Calves at Birth”
When non-dairy observers question taking calves from the cow at birth, some dairy managers make the effort of explaining how it is for the good for the health of both mother and calf. In humanizing the event, the general public overlooks the potential for the environment and other animals to pass germs on to the newborn.
#5. ”Dairy Farms Pollute the Water”
The biggest misconception in NZ is that all dairy farmers are filthy rich and also are polluters of the waterways. There is a phrase often trotted out in the media “Dirty Dairying” which means farmers who pollute the water. The belief is that we make so much money that we don’t care about the water or the environment. The truth is that we are most closely watched of all industries in the country, and any pollution is quickly picked up and harshly dealt with. And yes most farm owners [who have worked bloody hard for many decades] are asset rich but we are almost all cash poor. We don’t get our money till we retire.”
Patty Traxler reported a situation regarding an ironic turn of events. “Here in the land of 10,000 lakes as farmers it makes applying manure even more challenging! We have lake people monitoring us all the time which pushes us to do an excellent job. But when the county got a grant to check septic systems of the area 86% of lake homes failed! They now have to put a pipe in to move the waste to a nearby city costing each home hooking up $40,000 or so!!!”
#4. “Dairy Farmers are Rich!”
Since milk is so expensive in the store, consumers assume dairy farmers must be rich. This misperception was on many lists – some were amused — some wished it was so. Regardless, what farmers get paid is assumed to be making them rich.
#3. “Twice a day Milking” and “Lots of Holidays”
Some who joined the discussion noted that the public thinks “That we simply milk the cows twice a day… And that’s it.” Mark Yeazel’s has experienced this mistaken viewpoint, “You milk with robots, what do you do with all your free time now?” Some were surprised to hear that dairy farmers have vacations, “We have holidays?” Daniel Drummond described dairy farming in a non-holiday framework:” 24/7 on call…..ass to the fire….full bore. Try living with a rocket strapped to your back called debt…..but forget about it when you come in the house and see your kids. Bless the farmer, they need all the help they can get.”
#2. “Women Don’t Do Much on the Dairy Farm”
Dairy women are also misrepresented in the minds of those who don’t know and think “Women don’t do much on the farm. Or that every female farmer is a ‘farm wife’.” Ashley Elizabeth Morin notes, “I’m the farm girl, and my fiancée is the farm wife.” Melynda Naples also pointed out that “Often the female is “the farmer”. It would make a fascinating article (and statistical study) to see the numbers comparing woman who do the dairying while the husband works off the farm.
#1. “Dairy Farmers are Dumb”
Mark DeBoer and Sam Kenney listed the misperception about farmers being considered dumb.
Kirt Sloan added that some people feel, “Anybody can do it! The truth is that it’s a very complex business with animals, people, and nature…..it is a calling of maximum intestinal fortitude. And I am grateful to work in this industry.” Michael Steele also notes this misconception is out there and adds. “The truth is that most Americans are 4, 5, 6 generations from the farm, we have to do a better job of educating the public.” On that subject, Patty Traxler shared her experiences.” I spend a lot of time educating kids and the public; I want people to see that I am college educated, that I take amazing care of my animals, that they aren’t just a number, that I can be a great mom & a great farmer, and that I work hard to produce an incredible product for the world!!”
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Thanks to everyone who took the opportunity to share their experiences. Being heard is really what fighting misperceptions is all about! That … and not being buried in a pile of misinformation!