Security experts on how to protect farm facilities from outspoken protests, negative stereotypes
As farmers and ranchers in Colorado know all too well, the coronavirus pandemic that shut down much of the economy wasn’t as effective at tamping down anti-meat messaging or animal rights related activism, a topic addressed by presenters at the recent Animal Ag Alliance Virtual Summit.
In fact, security expert John Sancenito said the viral outbreak might have re-energized the movement, because people had more time to plan, research, recruit and stage events.
“Direct actions were up a little bit, which was kind of a surprise to us,” he said.
Activities in general were smaller and more targeted, such as drive-by protests, he said.
What he called “infiltrations” — when employees seek to get hired by a farm for the express purpose of obtaining incriminating footage — were slightly higher in 2020 than in 2019, he said.
Other trends he noted included an uptick in sabotage of political events to generate publicity, as well as efforts to link animal agriculture to climate change and to the pandemic itself.
“There was a lot of fake news and misinformation,” he said.
Sancenito, who runs an international risk management, investigation and security consulting firm, joined other legal and security specialists in recommending farmers evaluate their facilities for vulnerabilities and create an action plan to address any shortcomings. In some cases, he said, it might be wise to hire a professional to conduct a security assessment.
“They can give you some practical things to do to prepare for any potential activism and identify where to spend your security dollars,” he said.
Jim Naugle, an assistant sheriff in Sonoma County, California, has dealt with situations that have included activists entering a local poultry plant, which led to serious biosecurity disruptions.
Naugle, who was born and raised in agriculture and married a dairyman’s daughter, said law enforcement is a neutral party and must walk a fine line to balance the rights of the first amendment with the rights of the property owner. But he gave some specifics ag businesses should consider.
“One thing you can do to help us is to call us right away when something happens,” he said. “That provides time for us to get in place.”
It’s tempting, but don’t become part of the problem, he added, by shouting, shoving or starting a fight, because that adds more chaos to an already chaotic scene.
Instead, focus on gathering as much information as possible.
Make sure someone is on site at all times with the proper authority to handle disruptions, a manager, for example, if not an owner.
Good lighting and fencing is helpful, although it can be expensive. Fencing and signage should make it clear where visitors should and shouldn’t be, he said.
Operating a public venue like a farm stand doesn’t give visitors the right to access all parts of the property, he pointed out.
Security cameras need to be positioned at the right angle and generate high enough quality images to be useful, he added.
“One thing I’ve seen is the most effective tool to keep someone off of your property is dogs, even if they are nice dogs,” he said.
Property owners need to get involved with other ag supporters to push helpful policies on the local, state and federal level, he said.
“We get a ton of questions about drone usage,” he noted. “We’re working with the county to get ordinances in place relating to drones, and that’s the kind of thing that’s always good for you to work on.”
Nancy Daigneault, a former reporter who is now a media trainer, offered some tips on communicating with the news media in times of crisis.
Animals evoke strong emotions, which helps explain why animal welfare stories generate intense coverage, she said.
Story narratives tend to seek a hero, a victim and a villain, with the farm owner often cast as the villain.
“You’ve got one chance to deal with the story and get your message out clearly,” she said. “You have to make it so that the public questions the villain narrative.”
Conveying concern is important, as well as accepting responsibility and not running away from any problems. Offer your side of the story, and explain how you plan to fix the problem, ideally by bringing in a credible outside third party, such as a veterinarian or regulatory official, who can objectively evaluate the situation and make recommendations, she said.
If a reporter is asking an aggressive question, never repeat the negative question back, she said. Instead, try to reframe the response in a more positive way.
Be prepared in advance by having good videos and pictures of the farm available as well as fact sheets, she said.
Maintaining positive relationships with local law enforcement is also a good place to start.
Later in the program, Michelle Pardo, a partner with the Duane Morris law firm, emphasized that third party auditing can sometimes help provide added assurance when talking to the media or when seeking to shore up public trust.
It’s also good to be familiar with the right-to-farm law in your state, according to Brianna Schroeder, an attorney with Janzen Ag Law in Indianapolis. Terms and enforcement do vary from state-to-state, and zoning or land use changes can trigger exemptions, she said.
“Some states have strong language to protect a farm as it adapts and changes, but not all do,” she said.
The Animal Ag Alliance, based in Arlington, Virginia, plans to hold next year’s summit May 11 and 12 in Kansas City.