Montana group broadcasts message about ranching, conservation

Jan 22, 2010

Open a magazine or switch on the television these days and it’s not unlikely that you’ll see an ad or an article that puts a negative spin on the cattle industry. Whether it’s animal rights activists, radical environmental groups, or global warming alarmists who are behind it, there is no shortage of misinformation about ranchers and the ranching industry being put before the public. While many producers are aware of the need to project a positive message about our industry in the public arena, the day-to-day obligations of running a ranching operation, and simply not knowing how to "get our story out there," often result in good intentions but little action on the ground.

But a group of forward-thinking Montana producers are now in their seventh year of a highly effective public relations campaign aimed both at educating the public about the benefits of ranching and educating ranchers on how to be better stewards of their land.

Conceived in 2003 by the Montana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI), Montana National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Montana State Extension Service as a means of branding the Montana GLCI as an organization and broadcasting its message to both the public and the industry, the campaign runs under the catchy slogan, "Cowboy up with Conservation: It Can Save Your Grass."

The Cowboy Up project has developed three 30-second television commercials that are broadcast on Montana CBS-affiliate stations across the state. The television ads depict beautiful, tranquil scenes of ranches, grazing cattle, and wildlife set to music and convey a simple, positive message. The result is incredibly appealing, and casts a positive glow over the ranching industry.

Russell Nemetz is the Montana GLCI chairman and media representative, as well as the ag director for Northern Ag Network broadcasting and a cattle producer. Explains Nemetz,

"From the beginning, we wanted a big part of this to get out not only to farmers and ranchers, but also the general public ... Unfortunately, it seems like every generation is getting further removed from rural America, where food production actually starts. Through these radio and television messages we’re ... trying to convey that these beautiful ranges ... throughout states like Montana and whereever, the whole reason you have green grass ... clean water, is that ranchers take great pride in being the best stewards of the land that they can."

The television ads represent to the general public that ranchers are actively engaged in preserving rangelands and habitats, and identifies the Montana GLCI as instrumental in helping ranchers practice exemplary stewardship.

"Our objective is to continue (the) education process of the general public about conservation practices that are environmentally sound and innovative and (to) continue to increase the awareness of the importance of grazing lands, one of Montana’s largest natural resources ... It really helps to create awareness about what Montana GLCI is doing and continues to brand our organization. We’re trying to keep the good word out there about what farmers and ranchers are doing on the ground, every single day, all year long."

But the Cowboy Up with Conservation initiative is not only directed at the general uninformed public. Much of the aim of the program is to put the Montana GLCI up-front and center in the ag community as a resource for helping producers become better stewards through conservation project advice and funding. GLCI also sponsors demonstration projects, educational tours, and other resources to help promote good grazing practices in the ag community. To promote these valuable services to Montana producers, the Cowboy Up campaign also features several 30- and 60-second radio spots (some of which are run as public service announcements, or "PSAs") on over 30 radio stations on prime-time farm/ranch audience time slots. PSAs are also run during Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos radio broadcasts.

"It’s hopefully helping to get more people to implement sound conservation practices on their grazing lands. It’s our hope that we get to work with the land owners to determine their needs and how to get help to address some of those needs."

In addition to GLCI services and opportunities, the radio spots may also discuss hot-button issues of interest to Montana ranchers such as wolves, or brucellocis.

"On any given day, we have two sets of messages heading out through the Cowboy Up with Conservation: It can Save Your Grass educational program. We have the hard-hitting messages that we’re really trying to reach those land owners out there, and remind them who we are, and some of the issues we’re addressing, and let them know we’re available," as well as messages to the general public about the benefits of grazing.

Regarding the extensive media coverage the Cowboy Up with Conservation campaign is getting across Montana, Nemetz couldn’t be more pleased. "Montana GLCI gets a lot of bang for their advertising investment."

They are also getting a great response to the program, both from ranchers and those outside the industry: "We’re getting tremendous positive feedback from it. We’re just out there. You can’t hardly turn around in the state of Montana and not hear or read or see something about Montana GLCI and Cowboy Up with Conservation: It can Save Your Grass. People are understanding what we do; they’re starting to understand our relationship with the NRCS and extension and industry."

The Montana GLCI has also gotten creative with their campaign, creating pens, notepads, bumper stickers, chocolates, even chapstick, with the GLCI logo to spread the word that ranchers are concerned about rangeland conservation.

The Cowboy Up with Conservation: It Can Save Your Grass campaign was creatively engineered by Ron Nichols, public relations officer with the Washington State NRCS. Nichols emphasized that a key component to running a successful marketing and public image campaign is to have well-focused goals and objectives, the success of which can be measured.

Nemetz added that other producer groups looking to develop their own marketing and public relations initiatives should feel welcome to contact Montana GLCI to share ideas and learn from their experiences. "Contact one of us at the Montana GLCI and visit with us about this campaign. We’re not experts, by any means, on any of this. You just have to get creative."

The success of the Cowboy Up with Conservation program is in part a product of Montana GLCI’s tremendous energy and enthusiasm for the project, as well as its strongly co-operative nature. NRCS, the state conservationist, and the Extension Service are all a part of making this initiative work. Explains Nemetz, "We’re just one big team, and it’s so fun and rewarding to see that when we allocate dollars and people go and do their projects and on-the-ground demonstration events that, you know, it’s working."

The program is supported by funding which comes to GLCI through the national and Montana NRCS. GLCI is a national organization of producers, range and conservation experts, and environmental interests focused on the common goal of enhancing the nation’s rangeland resource. Many states have their own local chapters.

Says Nemetz, "Did we expect in 2004 to have this kind of feedback and success? No. But we’re happy we took this route; we’re happy to serve the industry, and we’re happy to be educating not only land owners and ranchers and farmers, but also the general public about just how important this industry is." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent