How to be SMART about animal activism

  • 9 min read

Article by: Jess Campbell

Picture this. You’re a livestock farmer, in your barn about to begin afternoon chores. It’s a Saturday, so that means not only do chores have to be completed but you’ve also got to make sure your daughter gets to her hockey game on time, you pick up your dad from the farm next door on the way to said game, and that you’re home in time to drop everyone off and head out the door again with your partner to a community fundraiser for a neighbour who lost their shed in a fire two weeks ago. In other words, regular farm life is happening all around you.

Animal activism is an issue we’re all aware of, yet are not entirely sure how to handle. So, it’s time to get SMART.

You’re just about to get underway with chores when the barn door opens and several people you don’t know walk in. You step back from what you’re doing, smile and call out a hello – only to be met with silence. Slightly confused and with mounting wariness, you ask how you can help. As the rest walk by with nary a glance at you, and holding tools of various sizes, one stranger slows his pace enough to turn to you and says, “we’re here to set these beautiful sentient beings free.” You watch in disbelief as these strangers begin opening gates, cutting locks and raising overhead doors.

Now that your blood pressure is significantly higher than it was a minute ago, ask yourself: what would you do?

Although this particular scenario is based entirely in fiction, similar events have occurred in real life, and very recently. Just ask Lloyd Weber of Webstone Holsteins in West Montrose, Ontario. Activists trespassed onto his farm in March, cameras out, to provide a “fair evaluation” of what they believe happens on dairy farms. After giving themselves a tour of the barn, the trespassers stole a dead calf and drove away with it, saying it needed a “proper burial.”

Activism happens even more frequently online, with extremists bullying producers for their chosen profession and slinging horrific insults – like calling dairy producers rapists for using AI breeding.

As the saying goes, you can’t control anyone but yourself. So when faced with the threat of animal activism, what do you do?

You get SMART about animal activism.

S = Stay safe

No matter where activism occurs – online or off – the safety of everyone involved (livestock included) is paramount. Julaine Treur owns and operates Creekside Dairy along with her husband, Johannes, in British Columbia. Julaine publishes a Facebook page with over 7,000 followers that, until this past March, always included activists. That changed when activist comments took a turn, with one calling for a visit by Child Protective Services “for exposing our children to animal abuse” and yet another championing for Julaine’s death in disturbingly gruesome detail.

Many of her followers immediately reported the comments to Facebook; Julaine also reported it to her local police. Julaine is grateful for the help of her loyal followers in reporting the incident and advises to involve outside help if you don’t feel safe. “If you’re really concerned about activism in your area or that it might happen on your farm, I would reach out to your MLA, your MPP or your MP. We had our MLA out to visit our farm and he was very, very supportive. I know he’s working on something together with a bunch of other MLAs. It’s been a great experience that way – to create that relationship with our MLA and to know that we have him to support us.”

If and when you reach out to local government, make sure you clearly explain your situation and concerns (for example, you’ve have had online threats of trespassing). Ask if you’re properly maintaining your property boundaries and ask how the trespass laws in your community or province address animal activism, both online and in real life. Be prepared to answer as many questions as you ask, and express that the goal of any forward motion is for everyone to feel and be safe. 

M = Manage misinformation

No matter what commodity you farm, there are likely a thousand myths that could easily be dispelled if someone would only ask. Because let’s be clear: as a farmer, you are the expert. You know the ins and outs of your industry and only you can share your own farm story. Farmers do not exist to dictate what people should eat. They provide not only a choice of food, but also information the consumer needs to make an informed decision.

Lisa Bishop-Spencer is the Director of Brand and Communications at Chicken Farmers of Canada, and says farmers are already doing great work to combat misinformation.

“Farmers are still the most trusted among food industry spokespeople. Consumers are more and more interested in where their food comes from, within limits, and we strive to ensure that they know that their chicken comes from farmers they can trust. Chicken Farmers of Canada also believes in choice. Of course, we support anyone who wants to make a choice to not eat meat – but only if they’re making that choice with facts, and not the fiction being perpetuated by activists. You have a choice in what you buy and Canadian chicken farmers and processors work hard to meet consumer preferences. We’re always ready to adapt to the changing Canadian palate – but we’re not willing to do it when it’s being driven by activists who ultimately want to tell Canadians what to eat and to force our farmers out of business.”

A = Advocate amicably

Many of us know the rule about not saying anything unless it’s nice. We also know it’s a rule rarely followed, which can result in raging tempers and regretful behaviour.

Tim May is a dairy farmer from Rockwood, Ontario. Online, he’s known as Farmer Tim and authors a wildly popular Facebook page of the same name. Currently, Tim has over 50,000 followers on Facebook and over 7,000 on Twitter, and has dealt with his fair share of animal activism. Despite this, Tim continues to share the stories of his farm because he can see the larger purpose and the benefits of educating those who choose to learn instead of judge.

“People love to know what happens on my farm, but they are often more interested in the people behind my farm. They want to know why I love being a farmer. They want to see my passion for farming and my compassion for animals. They want to see how I care for the land and the environment using real life examples from my farm. They want to be in the passenger seat when I have successes and when I struggle. It’s a balance of education, fun and emotion; some of my best posts contain all three of those components together. You need to keep your followers engaged in creative ways, and always be respectful and kind. Engage in polite conversations even if you disagree with someone else’s opinion. Many wars were started because of a poor choice of words! Be the better person and take the high road; you’ll gain the respect of others who read your comments and replies.”

R = Rely on regulation

A frustrating component of animal activism is the difficulty of policing it. But steps are being taken – such as the legislation proposed in Ontario in December – to build laws around protecting not only farmers and livestock but also agricultural workers and the food supply chain in general.

Keith Currie, a farmer near Collingwood, Ontario, is the President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the First Vice President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Although he recognizes the challenge of policing animal activism, Keith says the issue is top of mind across the world, and strides have been taken toward creating a viable solution that protects not only farmers, but also the entire Canadian agriculture industry. “We’ve been very active on this file, (having) lots of meetings and conversations, as have other provinces. In talking to my colleagues across the country, they’ve all been working closely with their respective provincial governments. This needs to be a farm-to-fork solution. Our truckers – livestock truckers in particular – and our processing plants are also being greatly affected by (animal activism). It’s a two-pronged approach: getting the provinces to make sure they protect property owners through trespass laws, and also putting the federal side to work using the Criminal Code. If we need to slow it down and get it as right as possible the first time, then okay. If it takes a few extra months to get it done, even though people are panicking, let’s do it. Let’s get this right.”

T = Tell your truth

If or when you feel threatened, the hardest thing to do can be to speak up. In the case of animal activism, everyone across the agriculture sector in Canada must do their part to tell their own truth and put an end to this kind of extremism. It’s not about quieting those with differing opinions. We are lucky to live in a country where everyone has the right to express their opinion. It is the how of that expression that has become a huge and complicated issue.

There is an aggressiveness that drives extreme animal activism. The antidote to that aggressiveness is courage. Speaking up when you’re afraid is the surest sign of courage. In fact, it’s what a SMART farmer will always do.

The importance of having a plan

Know your role when it comes to managing your social media platforms and if someone trespasses on your farm.

When it comes to social media...

  • Your page, your rules. But remember: it’s important to hear from people with all different opinions.
  • Create and post rules as a Pinned Post to appear at the very top of your page. In the post, explain the purpose of your page and that abusive, obscene posts or comments will not be tolerated.
  • Report any threats or abusive behaviour to the platform you’re using.
  • If someone breaks your rules, remind them of the purpose of your page (i.e. promoting agriculture). Explain that breaking the rules could result in posts being hidden or deleted and users being blocked.
  • Hide or delete content if rule breaking persists (Note: when you hide comments on Facebook, the commenter and their friends can still see them).
  •  Block offenders if they continue to offend.

When it comes to your farm and land…

  • Get familiar with trespass laws in your province or territory.
  • Make sure you have ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted around your farmland, and ‘No Unauthorized Entry’ signs posted at all entries to barns, shops and other farm buildings.
  • Create a plan for your farm around animal activism or trespassing so everyone - employees, kids, etc. - knows what to do if and when anything ever happens. Let other regular visitors, like your milk truck/feed truck driver or nutritionist, know you have a plan in place.
  • If someone is trespassing on your property and refuses to leave, call the police.