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Research shows what consumers think of farmers

Dec. 6, 2012 | 0 comments

Each and every farmer should make an effort to strike up a conversation with at least six people who are not farmers and talk to them about producing food and how it's done today.

One reason farmers need to do that is that the increasingly urban consumer population has measurably higher opinions of farmers than they do of the methods used in agriculture.

The keynote speaker at Sunday's session of the annual meeting of Wisconsin Farm Bureau members said consumer research into "favorability" ratings - like we see for political candidates - shows that farmers and ranchers have favorability ratings of 75 percent.

But there is only a favorability rating of 42 percent when the same group is asked if they like the way food if grown and raised.

Bill Zucker is a senior counselor on food and corporate issues for the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance - a group begun by American Farm Bureau and which now counts Wisconsin Farm Bureau as one of its 70 affiliate members. Its logo places the "&" inside a plate and puts a knife and fork on either side of it.

"We all need to be in this," Zucker told the members of Farm Bureau in the general session, adding that everybody who is producing food needs to try to help consumers feel more comfortable about the way food is produced.

"It's not what you say, it's what they hear," he said, showing research done on groups of food communicators - people who are influential in the area of food, like bloggers and writers.

It tracked the instant reaction of these people as they listened to a speaker talk about agriculture.

"These people are very concerned about the effect of food on their long-term health and their children's - things like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Anything that doesn't seem 'natural' to them gets a negative response."

Things like antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides all seem to have negative connotations to consumers, he said, and science or logic doesn't persuade them or change their opinion.

The tracking research showed how these food opinion leaders reacted to individual words and can help farmers shape the way they talk to their non-farming friends about what they do.

The message that U.S. food is "safe, affordable and abundant" didn't resonate at all with the test subjects, he said. "These people went to skeptical places. When they heard the word 'affordable' they wonder what corners farmers are cutting.

"When they heard abundant, they think of the fact that we have an obesity problem."

Turns out that what resonated most in this test was when the message addressed the concerns of consumers, Zucker said.

When the farmer's message to them included a statement acknowledging their concerns and admitting that farmers have made mistakes in the past but have continually tried to improve their methods, the favorability numbers soared.

They also liked the concept of the family farm and the statement that future farmers get higher education so they can learn about newer and better methods of producing food.

"It takes cutting edge education to fun a family farm today and fifth- and sixth-generation farmers work with science and environmental experts to improve their farms was a message that they liked hearing."

Most of the people in the test seemed to believe that most of the farmland in the United States is controlled by "corporate farms" but they had a favorable opinion of "family farms" which in reality control nearly all the nation's farmland, Zucker said.

Farmers know that those farms are where they grew up and where they raise their families, but the perception is that big business controls most of the farms and ranches.

These consumer studies also showed that people believe big meat packers or big food companies are in control.

"We can't afford to do things the way our grandfathers did" was another of the messages that drew a very favorable rating from the test subjects, he said. "Isn't it fascinating that we're telling them the details and they love the concept that the next generation will do better."

Many times when farmers talk about their farms they start with the pride they have in their grandfather or great-grandfather who started the place.

Zucker suggested that when they are trying to get the message to consumers about their farm they may want to avoid those mentions and instead focus on the education and continuous improvement that have gone into production on the farm.

That will move the favorable number up, he said.

Favorable numbers also move up when consumers feel there is "transparency;" when they feel farmers are not holding back details about how they do things.

"They wanted to know how and why they can trust you. Being more transparent is most important."

He shared a Facebook exchange where someone posted something critical of chicken production. A chicken farmer responded with the fact that sometimes she loses hens but shared details of how her farm is constantly striving to make things better for their birds.

The next exchange was negative but following that another animal lover responded that "any farmer who attempts to better the condition of their animals should be applauded, not bashed."

Consumers like to hear about research showing why farmers do certain things and are more likely to believe farmers if they see it is important for the bottom line of the farm.

The message that "it's better for my animals and I care about my animals" wasn't as strong with them as "by the way, it's better for the animals but it's also better for my business."

Zucker said he hoped farmers would engage people and start these conversations. It can be done in ways like blogging and on Facebook, but other places to do it include church, school activities, the grocery store or at the workplace, if one member of the farm family works in town.

"There are many places and ways you can start this conversation, wherever you interact with people."

Another message that resonates with consumers is "I understand why you're concerned about that" because it acknowledges their fears.

A good response might be something like "hey, I'm a grandmother and I completely understand your concerns" because that creates common ground, he said.

Farmers should also try to share the things they do on their farm to continuously improve their methods. "Every year you do something to improve your methods and you may not even thing about them, but you need to think about that. The concept of continual improvement can be very helpful."

Laura Daniels, a dairy farmer from Cobb shared from the audience that during last summer's heat she installed sprinklers and more fans to help keep their cows more comfortable. The rest of the message is that when cows are more comfortable they are healthier and more profitable.

Other examples of continuous improvement would be things like precision agriculture, GPS on tractors, runoff management, waterway restoration, manure management, he said.

"Farmers may not think about it, but those are things that consumers want to hear."

At www.fooddialogues.com, the alliance has started this kind of conversation and farmers are chiming in with their thoughts.

The USFRA has recruited some farmers and ranchers who are willing to respond to things that get said or posted that are "dead wrong" about agriculture, he said.

Zucker urged his listeners to make six contacts in six week using some of the consumer preference research he outlined. "It will start to add up and move the favorable ratings up."

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