A surprisingly durable lament in ag media is our frustration with consumer ignorance of where food comes from. Laying aside the possibility that “a supermarket” might actually be more correct than we want to admit, there is an almost mirror image of this unawareness on our part: We might be misidentifying who our customers actually are.
Our favorite target is the female grocery shopper. Our game plan is to somehow persuade her to our positions on issues like animal welfare or GMOs. This strategy shows little evidence of working. We are not even measuring consumer sentiment in a way in which we could tell. Sporadic surveys yield a scattering of consumer attitude snapshots. The sampling is not regular, rigorous and replicative.
Important Split. Food comes from a sack, too. Perhaps the most important metric we should watch is the split between processed and unprocessed foods on the kitchen counter. That proportion is about 1:2 or 70% processed (calories consumed).
Another measurement is how food dollars are spent. In 2014, for the first time ever, food at home dropped below food away from home, with no sign of trend reversal. That typical food customer is increasingly male and doesn’t leave the car.
Many caveats apply. Different income groups have different food patterns, for example. But no matter how you measure it, the influence of processors and food preparers is immense and growing. Companies like Unilever, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are arguably the crucial decision makers that have the most impact on how and what we grow on our farms.
Passionate blogs and Facebook posts probably aren’t penetrating boardrooms and corporate strategy meetings. Consequently, we need more insight into what those thought leaders are thinking. Reading more corporate guidance could be better research than one-off surveys.
Maybe shoppers aren’t crazy. We prefer a comfortable stereotype we can connect to: incomes, stores and families like ours. This familiarity might be illusory. Not only are most lives fundamentally different from farmers’, we often overlook how they shop.
Sensible Shoppers. Farmers with contempt for Whole Foods need to visit one in an upscale suburb. It’s like getting bumped to business class. You will be changed. People don’t shop there because they are clueless, especially as Amazon neutralizes the “Whole Paycheck” jeer.
Consumers with first-person knowledge might not share our cynicism of corporate messaging. After all, one spouse might be employed by Sara Lee, for example, and love the job and people. Going to war with Big Food over complaints like labeling seems risky when we compare the size of the armies—food manufacturing alone employs about 1.7 million people—and the odd fact we want to sell to their troops. Those careers make them potent opinion shapers in their much larger social circles.
The geography of food commerce matters. We rant to Apple when our phones fail, not some chipmaker. Kudos are distributed likewise. Food, like phones, comes from whom and where you buy it.
Many Stakeholders. Meanwhile, corporate boardrooms are getting progressively more serious about food characteristic policy. The industry lobbying arm, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is coping with defections from giants like Nestle as companies choose corporate marketing to differentiate themselves rather than emulate their competitors.
Replay the cage-free egg debate to see how this works. As giant food companies get even larger, this sales tactic becomes more powerful.
We should recognize the customer we need to satisfy is not only at the top, but all along the food chain. In addition, it wouldn’t hurt to assume they are as smart or smarter than we are, and enjoy a lecture from a salesman just as little as we do.
John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the on-farm “U.S. Farm Report” commentator. To read more from his blog, log on to johnwphipps.com.