I had a worst-case scenario running through my head before Open Farm Sunday. It was that I would be woken early that morning by a phone call from the team at NPA to tell me our farm was about to be splashed over the papers in an animal rights exposé, and discuss how we could mitigate the damage to the business.
That’s probably the frightening thought running through the minds of most pig farmers contemplating participating in OFS, because, unfortunately, putting yourself out there these days means you run the very real risk of unwanted attention from animal rights activists.
So why bother, as there is a very real argument to keeping everything hidden away from the public eye?
I understand that completely, but after having more than 3,000 people look around the farm in the five years we have been doing it, I have come to realise one thing. I would much rather have 700 people on one day when we have lots of staff about, weeks to prepare, car parking attendants, free signs, national publicity and two whole pigs to sell them as hog roasts, plus cream teas, ice creams, bouncy castles (money saving tip – try and organise your kids’ birthday party the same weekend as it saves on the hire) and a live band, than an animal rights incursion in the middle of the night when the unit will be shown at its worst.
The things we had learned over the five years we have done it are: to keep people moving during the pig farm tour, so everyone moves around the unit together and no one can wonder off; and supply them with over shoes – one year Grant, my manager, counted more than 360 pairs! – and plenty of hand gel.
We do not show people into the farrowing rooms with crates in because we simply could not fit them all in, but we have taken photos of what it looks like stocked up, and it is very pleasing to report that, to date. we have had nothing but positive comments from the people we show around.
In the lead up to OFS, I had some conversations with a marketing consultancy about preparing my business for the aftermath of an incursion, in a worst-case scenario. As with a lot of pig farmers who have built up further processing around their production, you are very vulnerable to the fallout.
It was interesting to note that this is not specific to the pig industry.
Among their clients is a care home and a zoo – both sectors have had bad publicity in the past from rogue employees mistreating the very thing they look after, which sounds familiar to our problems.
The first point that they brought home to me was to get some good PR in the bank, as if you are an open, well-known business, a lot more people will have a positive opinion about you before they get media/social media feeds about you.
I consider this point to more than justify all the hard work involved in hosting the event.
Andrew Freemantle is on the NPA Producer Group representing the South West. He runs a 350-sow unit, farm shop and hog roast operation near Exeter.