Telling the story of agriculture
Jen Sorenson has come a long way since her roots on a contract grower farm in Lee County near Donnellson.
Sorenson, communications director for Iowa Select Farms and vice president of the National Pork Producers Council, grew up on a livestock farm raising pigs and cattle where her parents also raised row crops.
“I was incredibly lucky to get to experience growing up on a farm,” said Sorenson.
It was her experiences not only on the farm, but off it as well that helped pave her path to a career in agriculture — a career she attributes highly to her parents.
“Both my dad and mom worked so hard as farmers and for our family and both had a profound influence on my career,” she said.
In fact, her experience of working in public relations in agriculture came at a young age.
“My mom was a preschool teacher and a volunteer Cowbelle in her spare time,” she said. “When I was very young, I remember tagging along to her county meetings, promotions and May Beef Month radio interviews. I was allowed to sit in the radio booth with her. I remember the host would bribe me with nickels for the gumball machine if I could keep quiet for the three long minutes she would be on the air.
During her high school years from 1993 to 1995, Sorenson said, was the time period when livestock farming was transitioning over to more modernization-type methods.
“Producers were making huge strides in sustainability, environmental stewardship, manure management and overall efficiency,” she said. “But the news media suggested otherwise — especially targeting pig farmers. I vividly remember after one especially negative report on the evening news my father looked at me and said ‘If only people knew what we go through to put food on their table…you should fix that. You can do it.'”
That statement struck Sorenson hard.
“I decided at that moment I would study journalism and pursue writing and public relations. If I could learn to write and tell a story, I could begin to help bridge the gap farmers were experiencing with the public. I joined the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University in 1995,” she said, adding that half of her graduating class in high school eventually established careers in agriculture.
Sorenson decided while attending ISU to add a second degree, this one in animal science where she also made the decision to focus on swine management.
“I wanted to see how the whole pork production, packaging and distribution system worked and how a farm, like my family’s fit into the bigger picture,” she said. “It blew me away. To me, it was the absolute coolest thing in the world. And I wanted to be a part of it.”
After graduating, Sorenson stepped right into a role as communications director at the Iowa Pork Producers Association and started promoting pork and the ag sector immediately.
“We worked to publish magazines, newsletters, pitch stories to media and organize community events and farm tours — anything that could tell ag’s story and help farmers have a conversation with their neighbors and Iowans about what they do and why,” she said. “Now I serve on the IPPA board of directors and help with the public relations, issues, management and leadership/membership committees.”
For the past eight years, Sorenson has served as communications director for Iowa Select Farms — a position she not only takes very seriously, but enjoys as well.
“I’ve never felt more at home,” she said. “I work for the most generous and caring owners — Jeff and Deb Hansen and a leadership team that is 100 percent focused on doing the right thing when it comes to our animal people, environment and community care. I’m honored to be able to represent our 1,850 Iowa farmers and caretakers.”
Sorenson is one of three at Iowa Select that focus their time on communications, community outreach, public affairs and public relations and they execute recognition events, employee outings, customer tours, open houses and the eight programs of the Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation.
“We take very seriously our responsibility of authentically telling the stories of our farmers and their commitments to environmental stewardship, animal care, innovation and overall getting better at being more productive with fewer resources,” she said
Iowa Select Farms also hosts several farm tours where customers and the public can see firsthand how they operate, in addition to sharing hundreds of stories of their business on social media and through their external newsletter, Homegrown Iowa.
“We believe it’s important that our fellow Iowans know what it takes to raise pigs, how we do it and how much our farmers care, and that we are available to answer questions and find common ground on issues, together,” she said.
Some things change, and some things stay the same
Telling the story of agriculture and the pork industry is something that hasn’t changed for Sorenson in the past 20 years — it’s how the story is told d what has changed.
“We authentically tell our story of what it takes to raise pigs, the values we live by and the efforts we’re making to get better every day,” she said. “Now, we have social media to use as a tool. It’s getting easier to get a message out and reach targeted audiences. But it’s not without challenges.”
One of those challenges are the fact they have fewer and fewer people that are tied to agriculture,
“Our audiences have shifted to younger, urban consumers and new generations want different things. We’re challenged to listen intently, understand what people want to know about modern agriculture and find that common ground,” she said.
Sorenson encourages farmers to get out and tell their story.
“I’d say in my 20 years of serving as an ag communicator, I have found that whenever farmers tell their story it’s a positive thing. Sometimes it just takes a little courage,” she said.
Farmers can help tell their story by holding farm tours, field days, going into classrooms, meeting with lawmakers and taking advantage of blogging and social media.
“I see farmers everywhere doing really great things,” she said. “All good things. We just need more of it and delivered in a way that best suits the audience.”
According to Sorenson, many farm organizations have polled Iowans about how they feel about farmers, farming and some of the issues they’re working on–there continues to be a tremendous amount of respect for farmers and a desire to learn more about conservation practices, animal care and how to produce safe, wholesome food.
Work as National Pork Producers Council VP
The NPPC, Sorenson said, focuses on public policy outreach, fights for reasonable legislation and regulations, develops revenue and market opportunities and protects the livelihood of U.S. pork producers.
“As someone awed by the commitment of farmers, I am humbled to be chosen to represent pork producers and advance our story to our lawmakers,” she said. “When we head to Washington, D.C, we help policymakers and the Administration understand the impact of decisions on the ability of farmers to protect animal health, produce healthy, affordable food; provide good jobs; and contribute to our communities and economy. “
And the past year has been no exception.
“This year has been unprecedented in this arena,” she said. “Farmers and pork producers, in Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s own words, have been at the ‘tip of the spear’ in trade negotiations. We’re 100 percent focused on resolving these issues to pass USMCA, eliminate Chinese tariffs on pork, complete a bi-lateral trade agreement with Japan which puts us on equal footing with competing countries, and open up new markets.”