Hats off to Agri-Pulse for your recent feature on Robert Paarlberg’s ideas about conventional vs. alternative agriculture. I’m a huge fan of the good professor, (and an admirer of his father’s work on 20th century agriculture).
But as an active participant in consumer opinion research with a group called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, and another dubbed Illinois Farm Families, my experience suggests that Bob misses the mark in small but important ways.
Your paraphrase of his thoughts mentions the “conspicuous strength” of alternative agriculture in the cultural marketplace, but “(it) still has a long way to go (to) capture the hearts and minds of rank-and-file consumers.”
Intensive work with focus groups tells me that the “hearts and minds” of consumers have already been captured. Consumers aren’t buying much alternative food, but nearly all are convinced that organic and other food produced by non-conventional agriculture is the GOLD STANDARD for food quality. Food marketers know this about their customers and process and package their products to capture the bias towards ANY alternative.
Also, the alternative camp may have begun life on the left and east coasts, as Dr. Paarleberg suggests, but its impact on consumers is felt across the nation, reaching almost every burg in America. And the movement has its roots in the 1970’s, not the 2006 Omnivores Dilemma.
Dr. Paarlberg accurately describes the Achilles heel of the alternative movement, however. Sourcing product is a HUGE problem, despite higher prices and more marketing channels. Organic, local, non-traditional, whatever you call it, is not going to feed America and the world. That’s why it is critically important for “conventional” farmers to prove to consumers that “we, too, can be trusted.”
Ag economist observed public opinion and behavior, and gave it meaning. But ag economists have never been able to “influence” public opinion. Only farmers themselves can do that. And that’s exactly what is needed at this time.
Dennis Vercler, is head of communications for the Illinois Farm Bureau. His letter is in response to a piece published in the March 21, 2012 edition of our e-newsletter, Agri-Pulse.