Despite the misunderstandings that often divide farmers and grocery buyers, there are two points on which they’re likely to agree. First, a majority of farmers say they need to produce food in a more sustainable way. Second, a majority think consumer interest in sustainable food will affect their farm operations.
Those findings come from a survey conducted this spring by Farm Journal Media and Field to Market, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps row-crop producers benchmark and track progress tied to water management, soil health, chemical applications and other metrics.
Of the nearly 550 respondents to the survey, 38% said they believe farmers “must operate sustainably, and we need to make more progress in certain areas.” Seventeen percent said farmers need to make “significantly more progress.”
As for consumer interest, 55% said consumer interest in sustainable food “will be a factor in the near future, and I will make it a priority soon.” An additional 23% said it is a factor that will be left to the next generation.
Like the farmers in the survey, consumers want more in the area of food sustainability. Seventy-three percent of consumers think it’s somewhat or very important for food to be produced sustainably, according to a report by the International Food Information Council Foundation.
Yet farmers also perceive a disconnect in sustainability definitions. The Farm Journal–Field to Market survey found producers most closely associate crop rotation (81%) and conservation tillage (75%) with sustainable agriculture. They think consumers care most about organic farming (62%) and wildlife habitat (58%).
The food council report bears out some, but not all, of those sustainability beliefs. Its survey found consumers most value conservation of natural habitat (44%) but also reduction of pesticides (43%) and ensuring an affordable food supply (37%).
While farmers recognize the good work they’re doing to be sustainable, and the need to do more, they don’t know when consumer pressure will arrive at the farmgate. The Farm Journal–Field to Market survey found 52% of respondents “have no idea” when their operation will be affected by consumer pressure for sustainable food. Twenty percent said within the next five to 10 years; 17% within the next two to five years; and 11% within the next year.