By Kerry Tucker and Teresa Siles

Consumers continue to demonstrate their enthusiasm for all things “foodie” – commanding fresh, local foods, the raw authenticity of farmer’s markets, farm-to-table restaurant venues and celebrity chefs.

Farming is “en vogue.”  Some are even taking their passion for the food culture one step further and exploring farming as a way of life, and as a means to positively impact the environment and climate change.

But there is a disconnect between the Norman Rockwell caricature of American farming and the reality of what farming is today. The question some in agriculture are grappling with: how can we capitalize on this passion foodies have about food to build authentic relationships, even public support?

Furthermore, how does agriculture break through the “big is bad” scenario without being defensive? First, it requires a different mindset than yesteryear, as consumers today – particularly the influential Millennials – view food and farming differently than generations past.

These young people are likely to weigh in (using their familiarity and comfort with social media) on broader relevant issues like growing and production practices, animal welfare and environmental performance. According to research from The Hartman Group, their food choices are influenced by wider social concerns like GMOs and whether or not a product is grown locally.

While consumers say they care and want to know more about who’s producing their food and how, we’re not seeing much change in knowledge and familiarity with the basics of farming, agriculture and the economics of food production. So, how do we bridge the gap?

Food Foresight – a 22-year trends intelligence system for the agri-food chain developed in concert between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at University of California, Davis – sees opportunity to win the hearts and minds of consumers. The end game is earning and sustaining trust and building relationships that cross both the consumer and political marketplace.

The Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) are also focused on trust-building initiatives for U.S. agriculture. The counsel provided by these three organizations is anchored in both consumer research and common sense. The commonalities are worth noting:

  •          Get engaged in the narrative stakeholders are having about you;
  •          Be transparent and build on shared values;
  •          Listen, acknowledge and respect public concerns and don’t be defensive;
  •          Demonstrate best practices already in place as well as your commitment to continuous improvement;
  •          Share what’s not possible and why;
  •          Commit to a long-term conversation.
The CFI talks a lot about earning and maintaining social license – the privilege of operating with minimal formal restrictions. When it comes to trust, CFI says, “confidence trumps competence.” That is, if consumers can be convinced that farmers operate from values similar to their own it’s not that big a leap of faith to believe farmers are likely to do what’s right when it comes to topics both care a lot about – food safety, nutrition, animal care and environmental stewardship.

Farmers would do well uncovering, articulating and living their own personal values. Values describe who we are and what we stand for as people, as companies and as sectors. Organizations that align behind their core values tend to be consistent in living them. They “walk their talk,” which is the ultimate in authenticity. Stakeholder conversations that begin with sharing values – this is who we are who are you? -- create opportunities for getting to know one another on a personal level before digging into resolving troubling issues. It’s the best way we know of to set the tone for constructive dialog, begin to build trust and open up common ground on thorny issues we all care about.

The farmers today who are clearly connecting with urban consumers better than anyone else are those selling their wares at farmer’s markets and other farmer-direct venues. These are the smaller farmers and they tend to connect well with the Norman Rockwell pastoral image of rural America.

However, most of the fresh food on a consumer’s table have origins with multi-generational farm families who, over decades, have grown their businesses in the spirit of the American dream. While they share the Rockwell heritage, they look less like the idyllic imagery of American farming and more like what’s been coined “big ag.”

Consumer perceptions of big “anything” tend to be negative and farming is no exception. Generations ago, farming was made up of precisely the small farmers revered today by the foodie sector. While there are certainly farmers that fit the mold today, there are many more farm families that run, for the most part, sizeable operations. They increasingly incorporate new science and technologies to their production of high quality food. Leading-edge farmers are among the most sustainable stewards of the land, employing continuous improvement strategies to enhance the environment, conserve water and/or treat animals humanely.

As Food Foresight has noted and predicted for several years, consumer demands for transparency, authenticity, safe and healthful food above and beyond price and choice, have become mainstream phenomena and not simply the expectations of an upscale few.

“The biggest thing with U.S. consumers is they want to trust something,” Jim Stengel, Procter & Gamble’s former chief marketing officer said a few years ago in Fortune. “They want to be understood, they want to be respected, they want to be listened to. They don’t want to be talked to. It’s trust in the largest sense of the word. “

Public opinion research leads us to believe that consumers trust farmers (who engage in a mostly benevolent activity), and distrust agriculture, which is, in the public mind, an “industry,” prone, like any other, to misdeeds, cutting corners and abuses attributable to scale. Perceptions like these can change with a long-term commitment by farmers and the farm sector to fully engage in stakeholder conversations, listen respectfully to public concerns and demonstrate by your actions that you care as much as anyone about producing healthful foods, protecting the environment, and when facing problematic issues (e.g. soil and water quality) improving farm practices.

About the authors: Kerry Tucker is chief strategic counsel and Teresa Siles is a vice president at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, Inc., a strategic planning and public relations firm. Tucker is cofounder of Food Foresight, the first trends intelligence system for the agri-food chain.


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