Public pressure about agricultural production practices continue, as biotechnology and animal welfare grab headlines.

Many producers are finding that a proactive approach demonstrates a sustainable persona. From serving on local government boards, to distributing information to new rural residents, to hosting open houses, producers have these practical tips on how they address concerns, increase understanding and communicate effectively in potentially antagonistic environments.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. When the population of Kendall County in northern Illinois exploded from about 37,000 in 1999 to about 105,000 in 2008, Bill Wykes, a grain and hog producer from Plano, IL, was glad to represent agriculture's interests on the county board.

“It makes sense for a farmer to be on the board and address issues from an agricultural perspective,” he says. “Out of 10 people, I am the only active farmer on our board.”

One of the key issues Wykes has had to address during his tenure is farmland preservation. The northern and eastern parts of Kendall County are developing quickly with new home sites as the Chicago suburbs stretch out. The southwest section of the county has maintained a more rural complexion, although with fewer farmers. The challenge is finding solutions that allow all residents to live in harmony.

“Agriculture is diminishing in our county, but we need to maintain representation in local government,” he says. “It's where changes to an area are first addressed. I think farmers need to have their thoughts known, and serving on the county board is one way to accomplish that. For us, it's only getting tougher dealing with more people, more zoning and more traffic concerns. We are in an area of explosive growth.”

CLEARLY SPELL THINGS OUT.

Nearly a decade ago, the Illinois Farm Bureau created the brochure “Country Living, a Look at the Realities of Living in the Countryside of Rural Illinois.” Due for an update and a second print run, the brochure features information on property rights, agriculture, neighbor relations and what homeowners can expect in the country.

Wykes says Kendall County has found the brochure to be a successful tool in openly communicating with prospective homeowners.

“The brochure tells homeowners what they can expect in terms of dust, smells, lights at night and other topics,” he says. “We have good relationships with most people who have moved into the county, and we want to keep it that way.”

Kendall County Farm Bureau Manager Dan Reedy says the brochure has generated constructive dialogue with potential county residents.

“The brochure is included with building and zoning permits,” he says. Kendall County was one of the primary information contributors to the content of the brochure. “We let people know that Kendall County has a right-to-farm clause, and people who move into the county need to know up front what they can expect.”

Reedy notes that Kendall County farmers have also made adjustments to the way they farm, to maintain good relations with new neighbors. “It takes a lot of patience for farmers to deal with increased traffic and moving machinery early or late to accommodate neighbors. They also have to be more tolerant of the subdivisions that border their fields and often the increased garbage that comes into the fields,” he says.

For example, new residents may see a field as an open space to run a four-wheeler, rather than private property with soils vulnerable to unauthorized vehicles.

“Invite them over and explain to them how your farm operates. Educate them about how what you do makes a big difference in their personal lives,” he says.

INFORM THE MISINFORMED.

Truly educating local residents about pork production was the goal of an open house held at the Funderburk farm near Morrisonville, IL, this fall. Keith Funderburk and his family added two 2,400-head hog barns as part of a new wean-to-finish operation.

“The message was that our operation brings additional economic activity to the local economy and tax revenue to the school district. We also highlighted our environmental stewardship efforts,” he says. “As producers, anything we can do to show the positives and inform the public is good, because those who are misinformed often have the strongest opinions.”

The Funderburks farm about 25 miles from Springfield, IL, and faced some community concern prior to construction. Keith personally met with nearby residents and constructed the facilities as far away from neighbors as possible. He had to balance that feedback with centrally locating facilities for manure application.

“We wanted to be more competitive within the industry and maintain a business that works with row crops,” he says. “We wanted people to know we were not hiding anything. The open house allowed us to take a proactive approach.” Funderburk offered a free pork chop lunch. He received assistance for the event from several pork groups. About 120 people, including neighbors, farmers and consumers from the community, visited the barns.

“Producers of any commodity should maintain open communication with their neighbors and address concerns one on one,” he says. “An orderly, clean operation also promotes a positive impression of agriculture to anyone who may drive by your farm.”

COME TOGETHER FOR COMMON CAUSES.

If an open house or other event will help you educate consumers about agriculture, joining together with other commodity producers may be an even more effective approach. Earlier this fall, the Illinois Pork Producers Association worked with the Illinois Soybean Association, United Soybean Board and Illinois Livestock Development Group to host an open house on the Gary Asay hog farm near Osco, IL.

“Teaming up with corn and soybean growers is a natural fit for us. What happens in the pork industry has a direct influence on what happens in the feed industry. You could even team up with other livestock and feed producers to host a community event,” says Asay.

“We are seeing some urban expansion in Henry County, and we found having an open house was a great way to educate our neighbors about what we do.” In addition to facility tours, the open house featured a free pork chop dinner, educational exhibits and games.

“The open house was heavily advertised. We wanted to show get the public how a hog barn operates and allow consumers to ask questions,” says Asay. “We had 300 people through in about two hours, and explained how pigs are raised, how we control disease and even the size of the pens. It was an excellent opportunity for people to learn more about where their food comes from.”