Sustainability is really a matter of stewardship.  Are you taking good care of your land?  Are you investing in your soil to enhance its productivity for maximum yields?  Are you protecting and preserving the resources we all share—streams and rivers, fresh air, forests and prairies, wildlife and waterfowl?  And can you prove it? 

What’s changed over the years is that consumers are no longer connected as closely to the farmers who produce their food.  The personal relationship and the personal accountability have been lost, and for many that’s led to a trust gap.  There’s also a generation gap.

One way some have tried to restore that trust is through the “buy local” movement.  Farmers’ markets are more popular than ever, and small farmers are building their customer base by selling directly through Community-Supported Agriculture shares.  This works for some, but larger producers need different strategies.

As we’ve discussed before, both major food processers and retailers have responded to consumer concerns about climate change and the environment, fair labor standards and food safety by establishing sustainability standards.  The challenge for agricultural producers is facing a multiplicity of varying standards trying to address the same issue:  trust.  Trust is critical for processors and retailers since it forms the basis of brand loyalty as well as the assurance of repeat store visits.    

But a new generation rising sees trust differently.  Including both Gen X and the Millennials, I call them the Google Generation.  The Google Generation looks at trust issues virtually through their screens rather than physically across the fence or the counter.  They support Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim when he dealt with the Soviet Union:  Trust but verify.   

As I told the Michigan Ag Leaders Conference recently, the Google Generation takes its cue from social media and the Internet.  They decide what institutions, what brands and even what individuals to trust based on what their friends have to say.  And that’s not word of mouth, it’s words on the screen.  Their virtual relationships are impacting every aspect of their lives, including their purchasing decisions and their politics.

With the average age of farmers at 58 and rising, many producers grew up in the post-World War II era or the post-Korean War days, when an individual’s word was sufficient for trust and when trust in institutions was much higher.  Thanks in part to the deep political divides in our country, today’s consumers begin the purchasing process with a far higher degree of skepticism.  It’s not exactly guilty-until-proven-innocent.  But it’s more like Jerry Maguire—“Show me the money.” 

The Google Generation wants proof.  They want to know where their food came from.  They want to know that it will benefit their health and that the production and processing will not adversely affect the environment.  Organic claims, which address the process of raising crops and producing livestock, are one strategy for addressing these concerns.  Sustainability agreements that food processors and retailers have established are another.  But key to their purchasing decisions is what their friends think and say on social media and what they learn through their research on the Internet.

So those who plant the crops and raise the livestock—along with those who process and sell to the public—need to be prepared to respond to the concerns of younger consumers.  Some see this as a threatening development.  I see it as an opportunity.  We can demonstrate afresh, through new media and new venues, the truth of our deep concern for the land and the natural resources we share.  We simply need to be as transparent in our dealings with our customers as we are with our friends across the fence.  The message hasn’t changed, only the media for delivering that message.

And there’s more good news.  We may not be twittering and tweeting, but we’ve put technology to work for us as well.  The technical advances that have given rise to the Google Generation have also given us precision agriculture.  Just as the new generation of consumers has increased access to information and sources they trust, so we can monitor and verify exactly what happens on our land.  As I’ve said before, we no longer farm by the acre or even the field.  We farm by the inch through precision agriculture, focusing every drop of irrigation water, every molecule of fertilizer, every grain of wheat exactly where it needs to go. 

The Google Generation’s computers link them to the information they seek.  Our computers link us to the land.   We can show exactly what we put on our soil and what the yields were.  Our RFID tags follow our livestock from birth to the meat case.  We know where it came from, where it’s been and where it’s sold.

The days of Mr. Greenjeans are long gone.  But we can garner the trust of the Google Generation and verify the safety and health of the food we produce and the process we use to produce it—using the same technological advances that inform their lives and their decision-making.

 About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems


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