Jolley: Five Minutes with Dr. Jude Capper, social media maven

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What's a Bovidiva, you ask?  That's her blogging ID.  She also Facebooks, Tweets, emails and travels the world to talk face-to-face with the public about cattle.  During the interview, I called her a heavy user of social media.  If she had been around before the internet, she would have worn out one phone per week and run one of those old-fashioned mimeographs 24/7.  Her postage bill, even at a nickel a piece, would have been staggering.

Dr. Jude CapperDr. Jude Capper Yes, the good doctor is a communicator.  In fact, her email signature contains her telephone number, email address, webpage, blog, Twitter address and a question about BQA certification.  Want to talk, read her commentary, follow her on Twitter?  It's all there.

She's been hanging around in my back yard a lot lately.  Drovers/Cattlenetwork just named her one of the '40 under Forty,' a group of upcoming movers, shakers and influencers in the ag business.  A few weeks ago, she took center stage at Kansas State University.  She spoke as part of the university students' 'Food for Thought' Upson Lecture Series. Capper’s presentation was titled, “Is Your Hamburger Killing the Planet?  Read Drovers editor Mary Soukup's coverage by clicking here.

BTW, she doesn't think your hamburger is killing the planet and she's a big fan of the remarkable steps toward greater sustainability the cattle industry has taken in the last quarter century.  If there was a caveat in her presentation, it was her belief that we aren't doing nearly enough to tell our story. 

Q. Jude, congratulations on your '40 under Forty' recognition. Let's start with some background. You started in the U.K., migrated to Washington state and moved East to Montana. Why the almost nomadic existence? 

A. Well, I’ve always enjoyed visiting new places – but I have to admit I never thought I’d be living here in the USA, let alone in three different states in seven years. The first two states were simply career-based – I did a post-doc at Cornell University where I first started getting interested in sustainability, and then moved to a teaching/extension position at Washington State University where I taught dairy production but most of my research focused on beef sustainability. When I decided to start my own consulting business I realized that I could live anywhere that had an airport, so I chose the most beautiful state I’d visited – Montana. The fact that we have a ratio of about 1.5 momma cows per person in-state was a big draw too!

 Q. Define yourself.  Are you a teacher?  Researcher?  Consultant?  What gets you up in the morning and drives you all day long?

A. Ah, labels! My official title is “Livestock Sustainability Consultant” - in practice, that means I spend just over half my time traveling (in-state, nationally and globally) to present about beef and dairy sustainability to audiences varying from cattle producers, allied industry and retailers, to academics and government. The remainder of my time is spent doing research into the effects of production practices upon livestock sustainability (environmental impact, economic viability and social acceptability) so that we can better understand how we can maintain and improve sustainability moving into the future.

I love myth-busting and using science to show why so many of the oft-heard opinions about animal agriculture are flawed - 'we can save the planet if we go meatless one day per week', or 'beef isn’t healthy because it contains so many hormones' - and my aim is to give producers and allied industry the facts and figures that we often need to counter the myriad claims that we read and hear every day. Every time somebody tells me that they used some of my data or that I’ve given them some useful facts with which to combat misinformation, it reinforces my love of what I do.

Q. John Maday, writing about you in the November issue of Drovers, said you 'helped redefine and redirect the concept of sustainability in beef production.'  Let's talk about that.  Why didn't you agree with the original concept?

A. There are a million definitions of sustainability, but until recently, it has only been thought to apply to niche markets, e.g. organic, pasture-based or local systems. There’s certainly a place for all systems, but from a scientific perspective, the extensive systems that seem inherently sustainable to the consumer because they mimic historical production practices actually have greater environmental impacts -resource use and waste emissions, for instance - and come at a greater economic cost to the consumer.

Through advances in nutrition, management , genetics and health over the past century, the U.S. beef and dairy industries have made amazing strides in using fewer resources to produce food that has a lower carbon footprint. My personal definition of sustainable food systems is that they make efficient use of natural resources; care for land, air, water and wildlife; and produce safe affordable food to nourish the human population. I’m happy to say that definition applies to conventional beef and dairy production!

Q. And as a follow up to that question, what are the advantages you see to the redefinition?

A. I think we can gain greater acceptance of modern agricultural practices by helping the consumer understand why we do what we do and why protecting the land, water and other resources is absolutely crucial for any food producer. If we eschew the word sustainability simply because it’s been traditionally adopted by niche markets or environmental groups, we are losing an opportunity for education as well as marketing.

Given that modern beef production uses 12 percent less water, 33 percent less land and 16 percent less carbon per pound of beef, perhaps its time that we learn from niche markets and start promoting the environmental advantages of modern beef production as well as the traditional nutritional messages?

Q. There is a conflict between people who would have agriculture remain in that small family farm ideal and those who insist we have to move on and incorporate new technologies to prosper and help feed a fast growing world population.  What's behind that disagreement?

A. Fear and misinformation. There appears to be no doubt that consumers want the newest technology in terms of iPads, smart phones and medical advances, yet technology in food production is seen as something to be afraid of. It’s easy to have a rose-colored view of the traditional family farm with a Mom, Pop, and chickens scratching in the yard and demand about how food should be produced when we are in a society with affordable, abundant food choices.

The preponderance of misinformation on the internet, in which anything “big” (agriculture, food, pharmaceutical companies) is bad, and Monsanto or McDonalds are used as byword for evil adds to the growing perception that we are doomed by our food choices. Because we all have an inherent fear of the unknown, many consumers often feel happier choosing what they perceive as natural or unadulterated foods, even when there are demonstrable health risks (e.g. raw milk), and it’s easy to find a website, media article or paper that will reinforce that belief. 

Q. When it comes to social media, I can only describe you as a heavy user.  You blog, have a web page, hang out on Facebook and Tweet from time-to-time.  How useful are those tools in reaching the ag community as well as the general public?

A. I’ve been amazed at how the agricultural community has embraced social media in the past few years – there are many excellent blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter users out there who provide great information that is relevant both to people within our industry and to consumers.  A few of my favorites are Dairy Carrie (http://dairycarrie.com/), Katie Pinke (http://thepinkepost.com/) David Hayden (http://farmingamerica.org) Ryan Goodman (http://agricultureproud.com/) and Janeal Yancey (http://momatthemeatcounter.blogspot.com/). They all have Twitter and Facebook accounts, too.

Research shows that we tend to trust our friends and family, and that farmers and ranchers are highly trusted by consumers, so when we combine these two facts, every food producer has a great opportunity to influence their non-ag friends and family through sharing links, photos and videos. We can humanize the face of agriculture through social media – posting pictures of kids helping to feed calves helps dispel the “factory farm” myth, and video clips such as the recent song parodies by the Peterson Farm Brothers help even more.

Some great social media initiatives have been set up to get the ag community to participate in social media – we need to maintain that momentum and take it to the next level with personal stories rather than just relying on sharing inspirational photos and links from others.



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