Ever feel like you’re speaking a foreign language when you’re talking to another person? Maybe it’s happened when you’ve tried to explain a weaning process to a new employee. Perhaps you felt like you were hearing a foreign language as you listened to a production or financial seminar. The words are just not making the intended connection.
Agriculture is full of jargon, and while it may make sense to you, much of it is a foreign language to consumers. Combine that with the generational disconnect that consumers have with farming, and you have the makings of a confused and easily influenced public.
In recent years, modern agriculture has become something of a villain. You and I know that you produce significantly more food today than even 10 years ago, with greater precision and less environmental impact, but consumers don’t. Americans do not understand the tremendous gifts of having large swaths of rich, productive farmland, not to mention the investment in science and technology over the years that have benefited food production.
Recently I was explaining some of the agricultural advances and modern practices to a friend with whom I garden, and her response was “Why don’t we hear that message?”
Why, indeed? Because agriculture has been slow to react, disjointed and protectionist. Hopefully, that’s changing with the efforts of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The 50-plus-member group of state and national food and agriculture organizations wants to change the conversation with U.S. consumers and to further connect farmers/ranchers with their consumer customers. The goal is to build communication, trust and understanding of and between both parties.
To get a clearer perspective of what farmers/ranchers and consumers think of agriculture and the food system, USFRA conducted two separate phone surveys. The farmer/rancher survey involved 1,002 responses between Aug. 6-18; the consumer survey reached 2,417 Americans during Aug. 24-31.
The surveys showed that there are some commonalities, but also some ongoing disconnects. More importantly it shows that there are opportunities to enhance the dialogue.
Here’s what consumers had to say:
• 72 percent know nothing or very little about farming or ranching.
• Yet, 70 percent say their purchasing decisions are influenced by how food is grown and raised.
• 42 percent say the way food is grown and raised has improved in the past 10 years. However, 37 percent say things have gotten worse. Both groups cite food safety and food quality as reasons for their beliefs.
• 60 percent say keeping food prices low is very important.
• The topics that consumers want more information about closely align with areas they want you to treat as a priority. These are: how chemicals are used, how pesticides are used, food-safety standards, effects of government regulations on farming, how antibiotics are used and genetic engineering of crops.
Worth noting is that consumers cited livestock and poultry care as the No. 2 priority for farmers/ranchers. That may suggest that they think they have enough information on the topic and don’t feel you’re giving it enough attention. In contrast, 80 percent of farmers/ranchers say that consumers have little to no knowledge about proper animal care.
Here’s how farmers and ranchers replied:
• Areas that they believe consumers need more information about align closely with the consumers’ list: effects of pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics on food; where food comes from; proper care of livestock and poultry; effect of government regulations on farming/ranching; and economic value of agriculture.
That last one may need to be handled with kid gloves as the messages could play into perceptions that modern agriculture is about greed, not responsibility.
Also, it’s interesting that both groups listed the effects of government regulations. I suspect the perceptions differ there as well. I’m betting that consumers want to be assured that practices on farms and ranches are being regulated, while you’re concerned about excesses in the area and the impact on your business’ long-term viability.
• 86 percent say that the average consumer has little or no knowledge about modern farming/ranching.
• 99 percent say that protecting the environment is an important goal or practice of their business; 96 percent say the same thing about humane animal care.
You know that your livelihood relies on a healthy environment and well-cared-for animals. After all, you are literally connected to both on a daily basis. But I think consumers would find those numbers surprising.
In the end, your values and those of consumers align closely, and that’s a good base from which to build. There are many more survey findings to dig through, which you can find at fooddialogues.com. USFRA will be dissecting both surveys and using the results to develop messages and program direction.
These surveys and USFRA’s efforts are a solid start, but a lot of work remains and it will take significant time and effort. So, roll up your sleeves — you need to be part of making and building the connection between agriculture, food and consumers.