Troy runs down a roster of activist groups — PETA ("They say slavery was as bad as livestock handling"), the Humane Society ("Don't tell me they're not a vegan organization! Look at the recipe section on their website"), the Animal Liberation Front ("These are the guys that blow up professors' houses") — before Stacy names the ag community's worst enemy:
"Sorry, guys. No offense to anyone here in the room, but it's you and me."
The couple launched its motivational-speaking business, Advocates for Ag, four years ago. The premise is simple: With modern food production under attack, somebody needed to school farmers and ranchers in public relations. As the Hadricks like to say, "Those of us in agriculture are kind of like Sasquatch or Bigfoot: Everybody's heard of one but never seen one before."
The couple's antidote is to "talk, teach and touch." Stacy tells the NDSU students, "Troy and I truly believe that conversations with one person at a time can change the perception of agriculture."
The Hadricks came to this vocation after an extended conversation with one influential person in particular.
Back in 2001, their neighbor heard from a journalist friend looking to learn about modern cattle ranching. Before long, the New York Times Magazine writer was set up with Stacy's father and uncle, who own and operate Blair Ranch, on which the extended family lives. The reporter decided to buy a steer from the Blairs but have them take care of it as they would their own. This way he could follow the typical beef cow from birth to slaughter and gain an understanding of the business's slim profit margins.
The animal — "No. 534," as the ranchers referred to it — spent its first six months on the grassy ranch in Vale before getting trucked to a crowded Kansas feedlot, where over the next eight months it fattened to 1,200 pounds on a diet of corn and antibiotics.
Then it was off to the slaughterhouse to be stunned to death and processed.
"The opportunity to put beef on the front page of the New York Times — wow!" recalls Troy. "We wanted to do the best possible job that we could."
But the morning the article appeared in the Sunday magazine, the ranchers felt like they'd made a huge mistake by showing how the proverbial sausage gets made. "It sent shock waves through the entire beef industry," Hadrick explains to the Fargo audience. "Cash prices dropped. Futures dropped. Packing plants and feed yards worried about protests. And every single person who read that article had their perception of reality shifted in the wrong direction."
Their phone started ringing. Hadrick recounts how he was called a "rotten, horrible, disgraceful human being" and told he'd rot in hell. "Somebody wanted to buy a steer and put it on a farm sanctuary in New York to 'live out the rest of its natural course,'" he says. "We told him the steer was on its natural course. It's a steer."
Hadrick had been a 25-year-old ranch hand at the time, taking care of "No. 534" and corresponding regularly with that now-famous scribe: Michael Pollan.
Adding insult to injury, says Hadrick, are Pollan's hugely successful Omnivore's Dilemma — which was derived from the seminal Sunday-magazine article — and his appearances on national television programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as his lucrative speaking gigs across America. (Pollan commands $20,000 a speech; the Hadricks get $2,000 to $3,000.)
Perhaps worst of all was the floating of Pollan's name in the mainstream press as a potential U.S. agriculture secretary. "He's not an expert," Hadrick sums up for the Fargo crowd. "You are. And you've got to get out and tell your story so some journalism professor at UC-Berkeley" — that would be Pollan — "doesn't do it for you."
After the session, the Hadricks describe how their feeling of betrayal by Pollan propelled them into activism. "He called [the day after the article appeared] and said, 'I guess you're not too happy with me,'" Troy recalls. "He ended up talking with my father-in-law and basically admitting, you know, that to make it a good story that people would read, he had to sensationalize it."
Through an assistant, Pollan declined to be interviewed for this article.
Advocates for Ag urges farmers and ranchers to take every opportunity — at state fairs, meat counters, even in ride lines at Disney World — to tell consumers one-on-one about the animal care and science that go into producing cheap meat. That way, when the curtain goes up on a movie like Food, Inc., viewers will have heard the other side from the horse's mouth.
"Just because you're a big farm doesn't mean you don't care about your animals," Hadrick emphasizes. Is it negligence when a rancher brings a calf into the house on a winter night and warms it with a blow dryer? Or uses ultrasound to monitor a pregnant heifer? "It's so frustrating for us to hear people say we're abusing our livestock," says the rancher.