Semi-lately (new in relative terms) one of a farmer and rancher’s chore items is defending agriculture to the public.
A recent AP article shows the efforts that farmers and ranchers are making to complete this chore: start up the conversation with their consumer counterparts about “what they do and why they do it.”
Many of the topics on this list is around food – genetically modified crops, overuse of hormones and antibiotics, animal welfare and processed foods.
In addition to corn, Hasheider grows soybeans, wheat and alfalfa on the farm nestled in the heart of Illinois corn country. He cares for 130 dairy cows, 500 beef cattle and 30,000 hogs. And now, he’s giving tours of his farm, something he says he never would have done 20 years ago.
"We didn’t think anyone would be interested in what we were doing," he says.
Like a lot of other farmers, Hasheider was wrong.
Take the issue of genetically modified foods. There has been little scientific evidence to prove that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts, but consumer concerns and fears — many perpetuated through social media and the Internet — have forced the issue. A campaign to require labeling of modified ingredients on food packages has steadily gained attention, and some retailers have vowed not to sell them at all.
At a recent conference of meat producers, David Wescott, director of digital strategy at APCO Worldwide, told ranchers they needed to do a better job connecting with — and listening to — mothers, who often communicate on social media about food and make many of the household purchasing decisions.
"It’s a heck of a lot more convincing when a mom says something than when a brand does," says Wescott, who says he has worked with several major farm and agriculture companies to help them reach out to consumers, especially moms.
Other farm groups, like Illinois Farm Families, are inviting moms to tour the fields. Tim Maiers of the Illinois Pork Producers Association says the group has found that consumers generally trust farmers, but they have a lot of questions about farming methods.
Some critics say that dialogue isn’t going to be enough, arguing that the companies will have to make some real concessions in addition to defending what they do if they are going to win over consumers.
As this issue has been arising in recent years, I’ve found myself sharing more about “what we do and why we do it” not only as a dialogue on my blog, but with the public. Even amongst my family at the dinner table during the holidays do these topics come up.
They are in the news. People talk about these issues with each other. They’re seeing labels on food they haven’t seen before. They want answers – and they want them now. This has led to a boom using the social media phenomenon to research and collect information (viable or not).
I’ve heard that “the consumer is king”. I don’t know if I believe it entirely, but they do carry their weight in many of the board rooms of major food companies across the U.S. Just as much as they are talking about food – they are listening.
Let’s resolve in 2014 to have them listen to us – the ones who “know what we do and why we do it”.