Oscar speech is no 'joke' to dairy industry

I don’t always watch the Academy Awards, but there wasn’t much else on TV after the kids went to bed the Sunday night they aired. My husband and I decided to catch the last part of the show, just in time to see some of the big awards—best director, best actor, best actress and best picture.

The week before, we’d rented “Joker” and really enjoyed Joaquin Phoenix’s dark and brilliant por­trayal of mentally unstable Arthur Fleck, who spirals into madness as he transforms into the iconic DC Comics character. We even predicted that he’d win an Oscar for the per­formance. And he did—Best Actor in a Leading Role. Well deserved.

He does not, however, deserve an award for his rambling, disjointed acceptance speech, which included an unprovoked tirade against the dairy industry. In case you missed it, here’s part of what he said:

“We go into the natural world, and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and, when she gives birth, we steal her baby ... Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Phoenix is an outspoken vegan and was named PETA’s person of the year in 2019 for his animal-rights advocacy. He’s certainly entitled to his views and to use his privi­leged position to express them. But nothing better sums up how out of touch Hollywood is with the hardworking Americans who grow our food than an actor worth $50 million, holding a gold statuette, lamenting the plight of dairy cows.

It’s certainly not the first time ani­mal agriculture has come under fire from a celebrity, and it won’t be the last. But it’s tiresome to continually have the rich and famous preach about subjects they know nothing about. For most of Hollywood, farming is as foreign as this year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, the first non-English-language film to claim that award (it’s South Korean).

In the wake of Phoenix’s speech, reactions from farmers ranged from outrage to outreach. In an online letter, “Dear Joaquin,” Wisconsin dairy farmer and blogger Dairy Carrie pointed out that there is “no one more connected to the natural world than the farmers who are out here in places you’ve never heard of, caring for the land and the animals. We’ve been sustainable and green since long before it was cool.” Her post was read more than 250,000 times in the week after the Oscars.

It doesn’t take an actor’s rant, however, to encourage producers to share their stories. Last year the Missouri Department of Agriculture launched an editorial series, Farm for Life, to tell the “real story” of Show-Me State farmers. Director Chris Chinn, an agricultural advo­cate long before she began leading the department, said the videos, photos and articles in the series are meant to “bridge the gap between urban and rural communities.”

“Transparency in agriculture is so important in connecting with consumers,” she said.

Beef producer Belinda Hess is also bold about publicly sharing the trials and triumphs of work­ing on her family’s Maryville, Mo., farm. She often posts photos of newborn calves and describes what it takes to help them get off to a healthy start. The mother of three says agriculture is one of the greatest ways to teach the realities of life and death.

“I’ve always been very active in trying to put stuff on Facebook and show what we go through in daily struggles,” Hess told me. “It’s not all fun and games. It is hard. People who don’t know agricul­ture may see something we do and think it’s animal cruelty. They don’t understand we’re doing our best to protect our animals.”

I wish Joaquin Phoenix could see just how much blood, sweat and tears that farm families like the Hesses put into the care of their animals—in all conditions, all times of day or night. The actor might not change his mind about being a vegan, but he might at least gain some respect for our farmers.

Unlike celebrities, those of us in agriculture usually don’t have a big enough stage to share our message with the masses. Though this year’s Academy Awards had the smallest audience in its history, there were still 23.6 million viewers. Rarely do farmers get that kind of exposure.

Instead, we have to create our own—albeit smaller—stage to reach people a little at a time. Sometimes it’s a few thousand likes or views on a social media post. Sometimes it’s hundreds of visitors at a trade show. Sometimes it’s a couple dozen kids in a classroom. Sometimes it’s a one-on-one conversation with the man sitting next to you on an airplane.

Those impressions add up. And they matter.

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