We’re all consumers. We buy cars and trucks, clothes and electronics, seed and fertilizer, food and drinks. About 2% of the population, farmers, also create a very personal consumable — food and food ingredients. Roughly 8% of our population, that is the amount of us involved in the agriculture industry, have a pretty good handle on how food and food products are grown, stored, sold, transported, processed and distributed. But that leaves 92% of the population somewhere between fully informed and totally clueless about their food.
Thank a farmer. Be an advocate. Connect with the consumer. This is how farmers and agriculture can start a dialogue on food and farming practices and begin to influence consumers’ perceptions, opinions and food choices, right? Well, it’s part of it, sure, I believe that. But in stewing on this a wee bit, I’ve come to a few conclusions. I’m beginning to string a few ideas together as to why the agriculture industry struggles to be heard and understood.
What brought about the stewing? Last week, I attended the Canola Connect event put on by the Manitoba Canola Growers. There, I spent a day with a diverse group of people — not just farmers, but dieticians, teachers and accountants. We were led through a day of communication help via Michele Payn-Knoper and Cami Ryan, both strong leaders in advancing the food and farming dialogue.
One of the group exercises we tackled was to name, in about one minute, all the groups or people who influenced consumers’ food buying and eating decisions and their perceptions of agriculture. Guess what? The flip chart page was full in half that time, but do you know what word wasn’t on there? Farmers.
This isn’t entirely news, as I wrote a post an entire year ago that highlighted in a listing of the most powerful people in food farmers were way down the list, but I did find it a bit jarring that not ONE person in the room thought to add farmers to the list.
So, who was on that list? Let’s look (this is just a snippet. Can you think of more? Add them in the comments!):
- Grocery stores
- Chefs and restaurants
- Celebrities & fitness leaders
- Farmers Markets
- Peer groups and personal blogs
After we established WHO or WHAT was influencing consumers, Payn-Knoper and Ryan asked us to then break into small groups and choose one influencer and establish their “hot button” issues. As an example, new mums may be concerned about food safety and quality, whereas chefs may be playing off the local food or latest fad angle. From establishing these hot button issues, each group had to come up with ways and means of connecting these influencers with farms and farmers.
Did you catch that? These influencers require ways and means to connect with farms and farmers.
Because, while each and every consumer has a valid personal relationship to food, the people who influence the average consumers aren’t necessarily well informed or connected to agriculture and food production at all (Hi, Dr. Oz!). They often have motives that have very little to do with sound agriculture practices (like filling their restaurant or selling a workout DVD), but their influence reaches so much farther and with more clout than the agriculture industry’s. Is it fair? No. Can we do something about it? Absolutely.
Personally and professionally, I’ve committed to adding a few talking points to my “connecting with consumers” presentation, ones that go beyond trying to connect directly to consumers. I’ve got ideas brewing about how to connect with teachers, new mums and peer groups, in the hopes that by expanding my communication net, I can move past “preaching to the choir” and perhaps make a tiny difference in how influencers influence consumers.