Education

Iowa professor questions America Needs Farmers marketing with Iowa football

Iowa Farm Bureau tweaked website, concerns remain about perception UI endorses group's messages

Erin Irish, an associate professor of biology at the University of Iowa, asked UI Athletics Director Gary Barta to ask the Iowa Farm Bureau, which sponsors the America Needs Farmers game, to clarify agricultural messages are from the trade group not the university. (Photo by Erin Jordan)
Erin Irish, an associate professor of biology at the University of Iowa, asked UI Athletics Director Gary Barta to ask the Iowa Farm Bureau, which sponsors the America Needs Farmers game, to clarify agricultural messages are from the trade group not the university. (Photo by Erin Jordan)
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IOWA CITY — As sponsor of this Saturday’s “America Needs Farmers” football game, the Iowa Farm Bureau benefits from its name and logo being plastered on the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.

But a UI biology professor would like to see the UI be more clear that it does not endorse the Farm Bureau’s messages, some of which seem to criticize regulation of agriculture and environmentalists who want to see changes in the industry.

Erin Irish, an associate professor of biology and a corn geneticist, met with UI Athletics Director Gary Barta twice this year to talk about her concerns. Those meetings prompted a small change to the America Needs Farmers website, but Irish still believes it is misleading.

Move the slider to see the ANF website before and after the Farm Bureau logo was added in the left corner

“I think there is a long way to go to making it clear to the casual reader that the information is coming from Iowa Farm Bureau and not the UI,” she said.

Hayden Fry origins

The history of America Needs Farmers goes back to 1985, when then-UI head football coach Hayden Fry coined the phrase and put the yellow circle “ANF” decal on football helmets as a way to support Iowans during the 1980s farm crisis.

“I had recruited quite a few farm boys on my football team and they’re the salt of the earth,” Fry said in a 2011 UI Athletics news release. “I came up with the idea that America needs to know that the farmers need help. So I came up with the ANF decal — America Needs Farmers — and it was amazing the great response we got, not only in Iowa but across the nation.”

The NCAA forced college teams to clear helmets of decals in 1992, and Fry retired in 1998. America Needs Farmers faded into the backdrop until 2009 when Head Coach Kirk Ferentz put the sticker back on the helmets.

In 2011, the UI announced it was entering a new partnership with the Farm Bureau to promote America Needs Farmers with a designated Big Ten game, stadium upgrades, a new website and merchandise.

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“We are honored for the opportunity to work with the Iowa Farm Bureau to help tell this important story,” Ferentz said in a statement in 2011. “What Hayden said is as true today as it was 26 years ago: Iowa and America does need its farmers.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau is a not-for-profit with more than 160,000 member families, most of whom join to buy Farm Bureau Insurance. The organization advocates for agriculture at the Statehouse, makes political donations and funds ag research and scholarships, among other activities.

Because the Farm Bureau’s ANF contract actually is with Hawkeye Sports Properties, a division of Learfield Sports, the UI doesn’t have to report how much money is provided for the annual sponsorship.

The Farm Bureau declined to comment.

Website concerns

Irish first met with Barta last spring and asked for the UI to draw a clearer line in online marketing materials between the university and Farm Bureau messages. She pointed to the Farm Bureau’s ANF website, emblazoned with black and gold, showing Hawkeye fans and including the Tigerhawk logo.

“If you look at URL it comes from the Iowa Farm Bureau, but that’s not where people’s minds go,” Irish said. “At a casual glance, you would think this was written by the University of Iowa, maybe the athletics department.”

The Farm Bureau says on the site that many Iowans are so far removed from farming they don’t know the challenges faced by the industry.

“Increasingly, farmers find roadblocks to meeting demand by a growing group of activists and political mandates that slow or eliminate progress,” the site says.

Recent ANF video from Iowa Hawkeyes Facebook page

This sentence bothers Irish because it implies it’s wrong to question the industry’s practices.

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As for the part of the Farm Bureau statement that refers to “activists,” it’s unclear what type of activism the organization means, but the Farm Bureau frequently uses that word to describe environmentalists.

In a June 24 article, the Farm Bureau called the Environmental Working Group “environmental activists” because it studied how much glyphosate herbicide was in breakfast cereals. The Farm Bureau seeks donations to its political action committee by warning about “anti-agriculture activists becoming our reality.”

Irish doesn’t want people who read the ANF site to think messages like these are coming from the UI.

UI’S response

Barta seemed supportive of Irish’s suggestions, meeting with her twice.

In a July 22 email, Barta told Irish “the conversation with Hawkeye Sports Property to visit with ANF and ask them to make some adjustments to their website has already begun.”

By Aug. 26, days before the Hawkeye football season opener, Barta indicated he was satisfied with the Farm Bureau’s marketing.

“This morning I Googled ‘Iowa Farm Bureau’ and the front page of their website featured ANF and also prominently displayed the Farm Bureau logo,” Barta wrote in an email to Irish. “I know we may never fully agree on all topics, but I’ve tried to be thoughtful and responsive to your concerns. I’m going to move on from this topic and focus all attention to getting the school year started and preparing for our opening football game this Saturday.”

The change on the ANF website is that a yellow bar, which used to be blank, now has the Tigerhawk logo and the Iowa Farm Bureau logo.

“I appreciate that a change was made, but find it to be an absolutely minimal adjustment,” Irish said.

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Jim Kadlecek, an associate professor of sport business at the University of Mount Union, in Alliance, Ohio, and executive director of the Sport Marketing Association, said sports sponsorships result when teams and sponsors see eye to eye.

“All corporate partnerships are about compatibility of values, message and priorities that are going to result in both parties benefiting,” he said.

Advertisers don’t hesitate to pull their support from athletes or teams that suddenly face scandal, but it’s rare for a sports institution to sever ties with a sponsor, Kadlecek said.

When The Gazette asked Barta last week about the process of communicating with the Farm Bureau about the website changes, Charlie Taylor, associate athletics director for strategic communications and marketing, replied.

He did not answer The Gazette’s questions, but said Barta appreciated the dialogue with Irish and respects her opinion.

“Hawkeye Athletics is proud to partner with the Iowa Farm Bureau through Hawkeye Sports Properties and we look forward to celebrating Iowa farmers next week at our annual ANF Black and Gold Celebration game.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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