Related to:

By hoping for the best but planning for the worst, your farm or business will be better equipped to handle a manure spill if one occurs.

Feb. 14 2022 08:00 AM

Abby Bauer
No farm or custom manure applicator wants to experience a manure spill incident, but accidents happen. Rather than finding yourself thrown into the unwanted spotlight with no plan in place, Michigan Farm Bureau’s Laura Campbell encourages people to think ahead. She shared her tips for responding to the public and media during Michigan State University’s virtual Michigan Manure Summit.

If there is an accident that involves manure, “Whether you are a farmer or custom hauler, you are going to have to deal with the public, and you may have to deal with the media,” Campbell said. She recommended that farmers and applicators develop not just one plan, but two.

Address the concerns

The first plan details what you will do if there is a manure spill or a hauling accident. You must be prepared to address questions and concerns, especially from people who live nearby, she said. Some of your responses may need to be different depending on who you are talking to.

She said to be prepared for photos and videos that could be taken at the site. “Everyone has a video camera right in their pocket on their cellphone,” she said. “A good way to approach a situation is just to assume you are on camera. Be careful of the things you say and do.”

A public response will be necessary, but if the incident causes a safety risk, your first and primary obligation is to start clean up and report the accident to authorities. While doing this, Campbell again reminded the audience to remain calm, in case someone is recording your reaction. She said you want to be sure anyone watching sees that you are competent and responsible and that you are doing what should be done to take care of the problem.

While it’s not possible to prepare for every situation, part of the written response plan could be prewritten statements for quick access in an emergency situation. This could include background information about your farm or business to help people understand who you are and what you do.

“Prewritten statements really help you out, so you don’t have to think about it on the fly,” Campbell shared. “Make a statement about your intent to follow laws and regulations and to cooperate with law enforcement and regulatory agencies. That goes a long way toward helping people understand that even though you’ve had an incident or an accident, you are going to be responsible and do what you are supposed to do help fix it.”

Also include the contact information for the business owner, manager, or another delegated spokesperson. Be sure other employees know who to refer questions to if they are approached by someone.

When speaking with people after an incident, Campbell said to be truthful. She advised one provide facts but not overshare. She also said it’s okay to ask someone to wait for a response if you are busy with clean up or want to wait for the official report to be released.

Campbell again said to be prepared for people to take photos and videos, and she said to not try to stop someone from doing that as it could escalate the situation quickly. However, she said you can ask people to leave private property if they are simply a passerby. “The only people you have to let on your property are law enforcement authorities and agency folks responding to the incident,” she said.

“Bystanders and neighbors may be concerned about their property, safety, and have strong feelings about manure application,” Campbell said. “You or the owner or manager should talk to them directly.”

Campbell identified that there is a difference between talking to the public and talking to media. First of all, she stated that there is no such thing as “off the record.” “A reporter can quote anything you say,” she said.

If someone from the media asks you unrelated questions or inquiries about information you don’t have, Campbell said it is okay to refer them to others who may be more of an authority on the topic, including regulatory agencies or industry groups.

If you are being filmed during an interview, she recommended talking to the reporter asking the questions and not looking directly at the camera. The reason is that it can be intimidating to talk on the camera, and the more you look at the camera, the more intimidated you may become. Campbell said this can make a person look nervous and potentially not as in control of the situation.

In addition, be aware of your background before filming starts. For instance, Campbell said you don’t want to be standing in front of a tanker truck with your name and logo on the side for everyone to see on the local news.

She also said that you can decline to go on camera and still answer questions. This may be something you want to decide ahead of time and include in your written plan so that you are not making these important decisions on the fly.

Repair the damage

If someone reports or posts something negative about your operation after the incident, Campbell said to first apologize and make no excuses. “That shows you are taking responsibility for what happened,” she said. However, don’t admit to actions that are uncertain or may cause you legal jeopardy. “Stick to the facts, and stick to the things you want to convey,” she advised.

“Outline the actions you took and will take to clean up and solve the problem, to prevent or reduce the chance of the incident happening again,” Campbell said. “There’s never too many ways to say you are going to cooperate and comply with regulators, law enforcement, and whoever else is involved.” She explained that this helps address the problem and builds goodwill for your farm or application business.

Before an incident

The other plan you should prepare is the proactive communication you do prior to an incident. “This is a really, really crucial piece of this. You don’t want the first time someone hears of your farm or hauling business to be when you get coverage on the evening news,” Campbell said.

She suggested getting to know your neighbors, local officials, and extension staff. Share positive information about your business, including your practices, certifications, and your attention to quality and safety. Provide contact information for the owner or manager, and look for chances to support the community by sponsoring local events, hosting events on the farm, or speaking up at public meetings.

“It’s important that you have a personal touch not only with clients but also other people in the community,” Campbell noted. “Let people get to know you.” She said it’s also an ideal opportunity to explain why manure application is beneficial.

In this technology-driven era, Campbell said it is really important to have an online presence, which could be a website or social media site like Facebook. Share information about the operation, including photos and videos. Celebrate achievements, awards, and certifications. “It shows you are taking that extra step of responsibility.”

She did note to limit this site to business only, separating work from your personal views. “That way, you are not generating controversy on a site dedicated to building good public relations,” she said.

When it comes to manure spill incidents, Campbell said to plan for the best, but also for the worst. With a written strategy in hand and goodwill built with neighbors and the public, your farm or business will be better suited to handle an accident if one should occur.

This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on pages 18 and 19.

Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.