Trends in food and agriculture come and go. Whether it’s new consumer language or buying habit trends like Hello Fresh and Blue apron, it’s safe to say that food has never been as trendy as it was in 2017. Last month at the Executive Women in Agriculture conference, Nicole Widmar, an agriculture economist from Purdue University discussed five food trends that we should start thinking about differently.
Niche Marketing: When you think about a niche market what words come to mind? Small, organic, local, maybe even obscure. According to Widmar, new research shows local food, which used to be considered niche, is now a mainstream consumer desire.
“I think we need to think about how we’re labeling these markets,” she says. “We don’t have a box, but more of a continuum. I don’t think it’s as black and white as what we’ve said in the past.”
Millennial Buying Behavior: Not all trends are related to age. For example Widmar’s research demonstrates that there aren’t necessarily strong correlations between age and purchasing dairy products from a farm that treats employees well. Instead, she sees other correlations associated with those kind of purchase preferences. For example: people who volunteer a lot care about how employees on farms are treated.
“I can find some evidence that younger age categories care about animal welfare,” she says.
Food As An Experience: It’s evident by the number of “you pick” fruit and vegetable farms in the country that food as an experience has seen a resurgence. Food is at a unique place right now, Widmar explains, “I either want it delivered via UPS pre-chopped or I want to pick it myself.”
She explains that part of the reason behind this phenomenon is the movement toward minimalism. A big part of that trend is moving away from things and toward experiences in natural environments. “But we aren’t good at that,” she says adding that AgriTourism is a perfect inbetween for consumers. They can go to the farm and pick out a pumpkin that you physically picked for them, she jokes.
The bottom line according to Widmar, is that people are interested in farming and want to know more. “It doesn’t mean they understand, just that they are interested,” she says.
The Intersection of Health and Food: Widmar jokes that for any ailment you can probably find a diet cure with a simple google search. However, there’s one particular technology where food and heath intersect: GMOs. “How do we make insulin? How do we make vaccines?” she questions. What fascinates Widmar is that same people who don’t want GMOs in their diet, beg for them when there’s a health scare like Zika Virus. “What did Ag do wrong that they tell ag don’t do it, but they tell pharmaceutical yes?” she says.
What she’s found is that people who accept GMOs in grain production also accept the technology for vegetables and are more likely to accept it in livestock. Accepting GMOs for medicine is a different story.
“If you like it for ag, you like it for ag,” she says. “If you like it for medicine, you like it for medicine.”
Big Data: The agriculture industry is currently consumed with trying to figure out the big data conundrum. First, it’s necessary to define what big data is. “The way we talk about it is the data you use to make decisions about your farm business,” Widmar explains. “I find it so interesting that we behave so differently as a consumer than as a farm business.” She uses apple watches and RFID bracelets at Disneyland for examples. “Something we have debated in ag is RFID tags in cattle,” she says. “Mickey already has RFID tags. Could we potentially be borrowing more technology from outside?”
Widmar admits the limiting factor in data-driven technology on the farm is broadband. However, access to data at Disney speed could be a game changer for farm businesses. “What kind of decision making could we be doing if we had new data every 30 seconds?” she says.
Another issue with data is privacy. Widmar says her research shows most Americans are willing to give up their privacy if they are getting something in return.
“Would you be ok with somebody profiting from your data if you get something from it?” she says.