A new approach: Turning to consumers for production advice

No one has to tell University of Guelph agricultural economics master’s student Travis Jansen that farmers like him are well-advised to listen to consumers.

But he’s doing more than just listening to them – he’s set to learn from them, too.

Jansen, who comes from a family hog farm near Seaforth, knows successful farmers have multi-faceted skills, knowledge passed down through the generations, a measure of luck and a great deal of patience.

But what’s missing from this recipe for success is consumer feedback.

Along with his brother Colin, an agricultural business student at the university, Travis is trying to close that gap with a new online venture he started this summer called EngagedAg (EngagedAg.com).

The brothers rightly believe food production is riddled with angst and misunderstanding about matters such as animal welfare, technology and pest control.

They also believe that if consumers and producers were more in tune – particularly, if consumers understood how food is produced, and had some say in production techniques – everyone would be better off.

“Confusing labels and flashy media make it hard to know what really goes on in Canadian agriculture,” says Travis, whose family raises 4,000 pigs on their farm, S and V Jansen Farms. “I like solving problems, and my solution to the misunderstanding between farmers and consumers is to be as open as possible and hear from consumers.”

Now, to some extent, consumers already have a say in production, through buying decisions related to certain production practices such as organic, free range and non-GMO.

But that’s not exactly the kind of consumer engagement Travis has in mind.

To him, engagement should be more communicative, personal and direct. It should be advanced to the point where consumers who see a video about how their food is produced can directly ask questions to the producer and make suggestions about how to improve production.

He says maybe they’ll see something that didn’t occur to him – for example, a patch of shade in the pasture that he took for granted or overlooked, and would make a cool resting place for some of his flock.

In that example, he could implement the suggestion by moving the pen, and tell the consumer he did so. Or, if it was not feasible, he could pass, and explain to the consumer why the suggestion was not possible. In any event, the consumers’ voice would be heard.

Then, as a final act of trust and partnership, when the chickens were ready the consumer would be expected to follow through with a purchase.

Travis and Colin are well on their way to seeing if the system works. This summer, using their family farm as a base and $5,000 in savings, they raised 500 chickens in a spacious, comfortable-looking indoor-outdoor pen there.

Even though the family raises hogs, Travis and Colin decided on chickens instead of hogs, because chickens are easier to raise on short-term basis, and require much less processing.  Plus, they were able to turn an unused 4,000-square-foot sow barn into a brooding facility for chicks. That’s making better use of their existing land.

Their first flock was harvested mid-August. There wasn’t much time to get the consumer-input system instituted through the summer, so for now, they’re selling the processed birds online through their website, through restaurants and to butchers.

They also have a benevolent side. On Monday, they donated 700 chicken quarters to the Guelph food bank. It was a timely donation; food bank use is up 30 per cent this year, attributed to the rise in the numbers of the working poor.

Now, with their next flock of chickens, through homemade videos accessed via a QR code posted on their website, they’ll show consumers how their chickens are being raised, invite comments on the production process, and respond accordingly.

The entire Jansen family has high hopes that this system will capture the imagination of consumers. Their 300-acre farm is productive, but it needs another income source to support Travis and Colin’s ultimate return to the farm.

Travis received some guidance for EngagedAg from University of Guelph ag marketing professor Mike von Massow. He is effusive in his praise of their project.

“As young people look to go back to the farm they need to find innovative value-added approaches that allow them to get started,” says von Massow. “I think this connection to the consumer has some real potential to not only sell some chickens, but to also help people understand food production.  These sorts of approaches are critical to bridging the gap and maintaining consumer confidence.  I admire Travis and Colin’s initiative and creativity.”

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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