Farmer-Writer John Phipps: Telling Consumers How Wonderful We Are May Backfire

April 13, 2010 05:34 AM

By John Phipps


Phipps' article first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Farm Journal Media's Top Producer magazine

Growing concern about public interference in agricultural practices, especially in animal agriculture, has prompted a remarkably uniform response from producers, organizations and associated agribusinesses: We need to "educate” consumers.

At first glance, this rather intuitive answer to the perceived threat seems logical. Obviously, those who would force us to change our operational methods are uninformed, and when shown the light will embrace the Truth. But implicit in this reasoning is the stunningly egocentric and naive presumption that once folks get to know us, they'll like and trust us. Experience tells me it is possible folks won't.

For my entire career, farmers have been droning about "telling the farmer's story.” Left unexamined, this conviction that folks will be swayed by photo ops and nostalgia has become dogma.

For most farmers I have talked to, it's a struggle to imagine this education process from the other side. Even fewer can embrace the idea—well recognized as a fundamental of psychology—that we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our motives. Convinced our motives are correct, we assume we are simply not shouting loud enough to negate contrary evidence.

Getting even more in the face of consumers to tell them how wonderful we are may therefore yield unexpected results. To begin with, now is not the best moment to solicit buy-in. Pervasive economic fears have the vast majority consumed with personal worries, and they're incapable of working up significant empathy for others.

Moreover, our culture of free-range outrage tends to draw these disputes down to the lowest common denominator. The deceptive ads and political actions of the Humane Society of the United States, for example, has many producers straining at the leash to fire back with similar attacks. However, this battle plan has not worked particularly well for our political process and has lowered the public esteem of all involved.

The timeworn strategy of reminding Americans how much they "owe” farmers, the bucolic pictures of an agrarian utopia and even the stern admonishment that food prices may well skyrocket haven't protected producer autonomy to date, either.

Meanwhile, agriculture faces a powerful new weapon. The effortlessness of video enables a message to bypass the rational brain and explode the emotions. The refusal of agriculture to clearly differentiate between food and companion animals means that revulsion over abused puppies is readily blended with the reaction against slaughtering food animals. The urge to "fight back” is apparently irresistible. But we can at least try to oppose intelligently.

Consumer Comeback. For one thing, there should be more effort from our industry to find outwardly effective, rather than inwardly assuring, replies to such crusades. The use of random testing and regression is widely replacing "expert” opinion in fields from education to retailing, helping us know with more certainty how people will respond. Such statistical analysis, outlined well by author Ian Ayres in "Super Crunchers,” has, for example, helped the Indian government choose between welfare policies and Kroger to calculate what discount each person needs to trigger a purchase.

Our greatest limitation is a sorry lack of data from past "education” efforts to create robust results. Random testing combined with longitudinal (over time) polling would uncover which efforts produce real market results. Of all the services our farm organizations could render, better polling, market data acquisition and analysis top my wish list.

Betting the farm on consumer education may be our best strategy. But as any college parent will tell you, education can produce strange results. We simply can't predict with confidence that it will work. More importantly, do we even have a "Plan B” just in case?

John Phipps is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report.” Contact John at For local station listings, log on to

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