Consumers have more opportunity than ever to buy local with more than 8,200 farmers markets sprinkled across the U.S., according to a new report from the USDA. In fact, the report cites a 180 percent increase in farmers markets from 2006 to 2014 – a clear indication that more people want a connection to the farmers producing their food.
There’s simply no denying that the local movement is not just for foodies anymore. Why? It boils down to trust.
Annual research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) demonstrates year after year that people trust the family farmer and reject “Big Ag,” even though the vast majority of the corporate farms they speak of with disdain are managed by the very families they’re drawn to.
The prevailing attitude is clear in recent interviews in the Midwest that asked farmers market goers and grocery shoppers, “Do you trust farmers?” Common were comments about most farms becoming agri-business with an eye on profits and disregard for what’s best for consumers, the animals and our environment.
In reality, all farms are businesses in that every farmer must keep one eye on profit margins to feed their families. Does that mean they care any less about their animals or the environment? Well, their success - and profit margin - depend on providing quality animal care and good stewardship of the land.
So how do farmers of all shapes and sizes who aren’t on the farmers market circuit make inroads with consumers and forge that connection that their counterparts at farmers markets enjoy?
The key is engaging openly, honestly and frequently in person and online about your values when it comes to the things consumers care about: access to a safe, abundant food supply, environmental stewardship and the highest standards in animal care.
It’s not about “educating” consumers with information, or touting productivity and efficiencies, which agriculture tends to do. It’s assumed that the more facts and figures they provide, the more likely consumers will come to their side. That strategy alone won’t work.
CFI’s research demonstrates that establishing that your values are closely aligned with the values of consumers is three-to-five times more important when it comes to earning trust than the default information dump.
In fact, when we’ve provided study participants with information alone on a controversial food topic like GMOs, without the ethical underpinning, it simply galvanized their opposition.
Communicating the “why” makes for a more meaningful conversation.
While most farmers didn’t pursue their passion for food production to be a public spokesperson for agriculture, consumers want to hear from them. Eighty percent of respondents in the latest CFI survey reported a strong desire to learn more about how their food is produced and where it comes from.
There are many ways to connect and share your values.
- Get involved in your communities so your neighbors can put a face on the large farm down the road; the one-on-one conversations you have can be very impactful.
- Consider public speaking opportunities; most people know very little about farming so providing insights and fielding their questions is appreciated.
- In this social media age you can enhance your reach by engaging in online conversations, sharing relevant articles, or posting pictures or short snippets of video about how you’re caring for your crops, animals and land.
CFI research shows that when it comes to transparency, consumers want to see your practices, because practices are your values in action. During our recent consumer interviews, several people expressed appreciation for the videos showing the farm-to-table journey and asked for more.
It sounds cliché, but you can make a difference. However, engagement must be consistent and long-term.
That’s how you bridge the “big is bad” bias and put a “local” face on your farm.
Consumers simply want to know that you care just as much as the farmer who, with a smile and firm handshake, is selling them tomatoes from the back of a pick-up truck.
Charlie Arnot is the CEO of The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a not-for-profit organization that helps today’s food system earn consumer trust. CFI’s members and project partners, who represent the diversity of the food system, are committed to providing accurate information and working together to address important issues in food and agriculture. The Center does not lobby or advocate for individual companies or brands. For more information, visit www.foodintegrity.org.