Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, and more importantly, how their food is raised. Here’s where you come in….
The need for consumer education is on the rise. Legislation, protests, food movements and the occasional statement-making nudist are no longer something that farmers can roll their eyes at or ignore—change is happening and it’s happening now.
Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, and more importantly, how their food is raised. The question of animal welfare practices and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) are at the forefront of consumers’ minds.
Unfortunately, misinformation and contradictory messages run rampant on the internet; however, this constant connectivity and flow of information can be harnessed and used for the greater good of ag education. Farmers, ranchers, dairymen (and women) and agrarians across the board can utilize the internet and social platforms to their advantage, effectively connecting with people they would normally have never met.
Approximately six years ago, the term “agvocate”—advocating agriculture—hit social media sites along with a slew of farmer bloggers, entrepreneurial educators and non-for-profits, like AgChat Foundation and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. In addition, many companies and organizations have regular social campaigns—both online and in-person—to help improve the dialogue between producers and consumers.
For example, AgChat holds weekly Twitter conversations using the hashtags #AgChat and #FoodChat along with hosting several outreach and training programs. The Pork Checkoff recently began their Twitter and Facebook campaign appropriately dubbed #RealPigFarming. This is in addition to their long-running Operation Main Street program. U.S. Farmers and Ranchers have Food Dialogues events across the country bringing foodies and farmers together.
So, what does this have to do with you?
More than you’d think. In 2013, The Center for Food Integrity conducted research on consumer trust in relation to farming and farmers, their research showed that consumers trust farmers but not farming. According to the research, technological advances, farm size and a general alienation from agriculture caused consumers to doubt the nutritional value and safety of their food. A new survey conducted by the Iowa Food and Family Project, which polled 353 health-conscious Iowans, showed farmer trust is on the uptick with consumers.
What does this tell us? It shows that consumers need a face, a real person to connect to their food and to food production. In an age of virtual worlds and instant messaging it is easy to take for granted how important human connection is—even when that connection is via a digital device.
As a farmer, it’s your job to protect your investment, livelihood and legacy. Once upon a time, that meant making good financial decision, having a good hold on tax issues and creating a plan to carry the farm over to the next generation. This is still vital to running your business but an additional hurdle has been added—transparency.
Consumers demand transparency when it comes to their food, which comes with an additional hurdle, gaining consumer trust. This is no easy task but anything worth doing is never easy.
Economically, says Paragon Economics’ Steve Meyer, consumer demand isn’t affected by the animal rights groups. The real impact, he says, is on the production side, which could result in long-term economic impact.
Legislation, undercover videos and consumer outcry have ultimately changed the way we farm. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, with any industry there is always room for improvement, but when do those ‘improvements’ become impractical and devastate our industry? Where do we draw the line?
This is why it is crucial for farmers to become part of the process and create a dialogue with consumers instead of just assuming consumers won’t ultimately betray themselves in their quest for further improvements in agriculture.
Where to start?
Row Crop Farmers
Pam Fretwell regularly hosts Consumer Ag Connection, a radio talk show that helps farmers connect with consumers. Recently, she had Indiana row crop farmer Brian Scott on the show to discuss his farm and how he connects with consumers. Connecting with your local radio and television stations is one way to get the community involved and start a dialogue.
GMOs are all the rage, and not necessarily in a good way. Consumers want to know about GMO crops, which is completely understandable. Unfortunately, they aren’t the easiest thing to explain. Here’s where seeking out online resources comes in handy. Find out the top 10 questions consumers ask about GMOs and how to answer them.
Animal welfare is one of the most important aspects to raising livestock but consumers don’t always understand what that means. There is animal welfare and animal rights, which are two totally different things. Too often, these two phrases become interchangeable in the eyes of the general public.
Through creating transparency in your operation, you build consumer trust and through this trust you can create real dialogue, which leads to change on both the consumer-side and perhaps, even the producer side. By listening to consumer concerns, it might change the way you think about or do certain things on your farm or ranch. This is how positive change happens and what the consumers are really after. They just want to know that you care. It sounds simple but it is far more complex than you’d think.
Dairy farming has increasingly come under attack with so-called “abuse videos” and a general disconnect to agriculture and farming practices.
"Consumers don't understand the great improvements agriculture has made, which creates opportunity for activists and detractors,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO with the Center for Food Integrity.
In order to make sure dairy demand stays strong, producers and processors need to maintain transparency, keeping an open-line with consumers. Julie Maurer, Wisconsin dairy farmer and recent Dairy Today Dollars and Sense contributor, reminds us that while consumers currently trust dairy farmers, “we need to remember that trust is hard to earn and very easy to lose.”
Agriculture is the backbone of this great nation but that doesn’t make it impervious to attacks. With the growing disconnect to agriculture, consumer connections are more important than ever. The question is, how will you share your farm and connect with others?