What's in a Name?

In the battle for consumer trust, farmers must share their values with customers

If you had any wild ideas that 2010 would bring an end to the growing consumer distrust of commercial agriculture, think again.

There was former Vice President Al Gore on Saturday Night Live, midway through a classic rant about how we should cut back on coal and oil, and stop deforestation. And plant billions of trees. Then he added the zinger: "…We need to stop factory farming and start using sustainable agriculture."

Which got me to thinking: Can Al Gore, or anyone, define 'factory farm'? And how does anyone know if those farms, however defined, are not sustainable?

If a consumer believes a so-called 'factory farm' – say, a confinement hog facility or cattle feedlot – is not sustainable, will those operations get hammered by more regulations, or shut down altogether? Will the Al Gores and other activists of the world be able to defend shutting them down when the United Nations says the amount of food we produce globally must double in the next 40 years?

How you define what you do and who you are may make all the difference in the ongoing battle for consumer trust.

It appears most consumers are disinterested and uninformed about where food comes from. They trust 'farmers,' but they don't trust modern farm techniques, according to a 2009 survey of 2,000 consumers sponsored by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI).

One Nashville consumer said she believed a "farmer grows and sells locally with ethics, whereas commercial producers are all about the paycheck."

Agricultural journalists often debate what to call people who produce food. For years we were content to use the word 'farmer.' Then some time in the 70s, a call apparently went out to upgrade the name. For some reason we needed to start calling you 'producers' instead of farmers, because the word 'farmer' seemed…old-fashioned, I guess. 'Producer' sounded more modern and…productive. But consumers want to identify with something, and they have good feelings about the farmer title.

Consumers were asked to rate key ag stakeholders – farmers, processors, grocery stores, restaurants - on competence, confidence, responsibility and trust as it relates to sustainability. For example, under 'responsibility,' consumers were asked, "Tell us how much responsibility you believe each group has for ensuring the sustainability of the food we eat."

Those surveyed said they believe farmers are most responsible in sustainability of food products, with restaurants ranking last.

According to this survey, building consumer trust is about confidence, not competence.

The challenge before all of us is to share your values with consumers. Let them see how you produce in a modern farm operation. That way you will build confidence in modern farming methods among the millions of consumers who are disconnected from today's farming practices.

It can be done, but you won't be able to do so from the tractor seat.

This will be a pivotal year in the changing relationship between consumers and producers - er, farmers.

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