Boots and a cowboy hat easily identify Troy Hadrick as a cattleman in western South Dakota, but drop him in the heart of Dover, Del., and the Vale rancher instantly becomes a curiosity.
Armed with his five-minute elevator speech, Hadrick is ready to capitalize on that curiosity to speak up for production agriculture, frequently emphasizing how much energy and care goes into raising the nation's food.
"I introduce myself as Troy Hadrick, a fifth-generation United States rancher, and I raise cattle in western South Dakota that end up on your dinner plate," Hadrick said. "Things like that kind of hit home."
Taking every opportunity to have a personal conversation with consumers is becoming increasingly important for the future of agriculture in this country, according to agricultural leaders.
"There are too many decisions that are based upon emotionalism and a
basic fundamental lack of knowledge," said former South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Larry Gabriel. "It's important for producers to get out and be able to tell their stories."
Agriculture faces growing challenges over animal welfare and animal-rights issues, as well as land and environmental concerns.
For example, "We've outlawed the ability to harvest a species of livestock in this country through horse slaughter," Hadrick said.
Well-funded groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, can tap multimillion-dollar budgets to advance their causes, according to Hadrick.
"They have a simple goal, and that is to eliminate animal agriculture in this country," Hadrick said.
The Humane Society's Web site promotes vegetarian eating, as well as choosing meat and poultry that has been raised outside of what it calls "conventional factory farms."
Hadrick worries that changes like a new California law have the potential to change accepted agricultural practices that are vital to this nation's food production.
The law, adopted in November, requires that veal calves, laying hens and pregnant sows be confined only in a way that allows them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn freely.
Promoted by the Humane Society, the initiative sets new standards that must be enacted by 2015.
PETA takes a more radical stance than the Humane Society on many issues, but not everyone sees it that way.
"No longer can people in agriculture sit by and think everybody recognizes PETA as a radical group," Troy Hadrick's wife, Stacy Hadrick, said.
"It only takes a visit to their kids' Web site. They're targeting kids to get dissecting outlawed in schools. Where does it stop?"
In today's consumer-driven marketplace, it is no longer adequate for farmers and ranchers to just try to educate the public about what they do, said Mace Thornton, deputy director of public relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"Today, to be effective, it has to be a two-way conversation," Thornton said. Engaging in that kind of conversation allows farmers and ranchers to communicate their personal stories about caring for their animals or the environment, he said.
"However, it also allows them to find out the topics on consumers' minds," Thornton said. Consumers more than ever want to know not only what farmers do to produce food, but why they do what they do, he added.
Troy Hadrick, 32, and, Stacy Hadrick, 34, are members of the fifth generation living on the Blair Brothers Ranch near Vale. Stacy Hadrick, the daughter of Ed and Wanda Blair, is also an Extension educator for Meade County.
Over the past two years, the Hadricks have shifted most of their energies away from the ranching business to become vocal supporters of production agriculture. They've started a public speaking business, Advocates for Agriculture, which has taken them throughout the nation, encouraging people like themselves to get out and tell agriculture's story.
Through Advocates for Agriculture the Hadricks have traveled to 10 states. Stacy Hadrick said they meet many people who are genuinely interested in what they do.
"They're fascinated to meet somebody who actually produces food," she said. "I can't even tell you the high that you get from talking to somebody and knowing that you're making a connection with them because they have a better understanding of where their food comes from."
Troy Hadrick said part of what drives them is that they fear things will change so much that their children might not have the opportunity to ranch. "That might not be there if people don't start standing up and defending this industry and telling the truth about this industry."
The Hadricks themselves felt the power of this philosophy seven years ago, when the Blair ranch was featured in a now-well-known The New York Times story, titled "Power Steer," written by Michael Pollen.
Pollen approached the ranch with the idea of telling the story of beef's journey from the ranch to the table.
What was published differed from what Hadrick believed Pollen pitched: a positive story about agriculture, according to the Hadricks.
"That wasn't the case; he had an agenda before that," Troy Hadrick said.
When Pollen's story was published, it accused ranchers of destroying the environment, practically abusing their animals and put the responsibility for the nation's health problems on ranchers, Troy Hadrick said.
If Pollen's descriptive article was critical, it was of the nation's large feedlots rather than independent ranchers who start their calves on milk and grass. In fact, the writer concluded, "Meat-eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and light is something I'm happy to do and defend."
Still, after the story appeared, the Hadricks received numerous phone calls from people who accused them of being horrible people because they raised livestock.
The Hadricks say they stewed on that article for several years before realizing that no one else was going to come along to "right that wrong"
unless it was them.
Tackling public policy
Activism is increasing throughout the plains region, and organizations like the American Farm Bureau are stepping up efforts to help farmers and ranchers make their cases.
The Farm Bureau's program, "Conversations on Animal Care" educates consumers about the priority livestock producers place on animal health.
The program offered Hilary Maricle of Boone County, Neb., training in speaking to people and dealing with the media.
Although she is a teacher, Maricle never envisioned tackling public policy and legislative issues, but that all changed when Boone County enacted a temporary livestock moratorium to study zoning last year.
Slightly more than 7 percent of soil in Boone County is fragile Valentine sand. An influential group of citizens argued that land shouldn't be developed or ranched, she said.
Curious, Maricle attended a planning and zoning meeting where she was outnumbered five to one by people opposed to agriculture.
After that first meeting, Maricle pulled together a group of Boone County agricultural producers to take their concerns about the proposed zoning changes to the county commissioners.
The entire process was eye-opening for the region's ag community, she said.
Maricle and her husband, Brian, are the sixth generation living on a family cattle and pig operation in the northeast corner of the state.
Active in Farm Bureau, the Maricles received leadership training through the group's Young Farmers and Ranchers program. She serves on the
Nebraska Farm Bureau's board of directors, which has given her additional insight into the challenges facing agriculture.
"I knew things needed doing, but I really got set off last year," Maricle said.
Maricle said it is important for farmers and ranchers to be bold spokespersons for their way of life. Producers are credible resources, she said.
"People do believe what we have to say," Maricle said. "But, we're very good at being too polite and not speaking up. We have to speak up or someone else is going to tell our story, and it won't be accurate."
Taking a stand
The increasing population shift away from farms and ranches and into cities is a challenge, along with the unfamiliarity of some ag organizations with Internet-based marketing.
There is a great disconnect between consumers and their food sources, said Amanda Nolz, 21, a senior agricultural journalism student at South Dakota State University. Her family raises Limousin cattle near Mitchell.
Technology and the ease with which information is dispersed is one of the biggest problems facing production agriculture, Nolz said. She currently edits "BEEF Daily," an online beef-
industry news and commentary for BEEF Magazine.
Nolz is proud that her speaking and writing abilities have allowed her to step out and become a voice for her parents and other people in production agriculture.
"I know it takes a special kind of person to do that," she said. "I want to be able to teach other people to stand up and do it, too."
As the 2006 National Beef Ambassador, Nolz knows what a challenging task it is to counter the negative image of agriculture portrayed by some individuals and organizations.
During the National FFA Convention in 2006, Nolz inspired several thousand members to walk out of a Carrie Underwood concert to protest the vegetarian singer's presence at the convention, especially given her relationship with the Humane Society of the United States.
"I thought it was more than ironic; I thought it was terrible that they had invited her," Nolz said.
It was a challenging time to be an advocate for the industry, according to Nolz. Many of her FFA friends wouldn't speak to her. Her parents also didn't understand her actions.
"Anytime you stand up and say what you believe, you're going to make friends, and you're going to make enemies," Nolz said. "But at the end of the day, you're still doing what you believe in."
On the Web:
Troy and Stacy Hadrick: www.advocatesforag.com
Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or email@example.com.