The agriculture industry is fully aware of the need to educate the consumer base. As the average consumer is now two to four generations removed from the farm, agvocates across the nation are pushing out educational content that highlights the most recent science-based studies.
However, our consumers are not in need of more information. Good content is already available and accessible. With the rise of digital communication, pushing out information is easy. The challenge lies in deficient, and often times nonexistent, relationships. Healthy interactions and relationships built on trust will become key factors in determining the agriculture industry’s popularity in the eyes of consumers.
Before we can establish this trust, we must recognize the topic of “food” as a very personal subject.
Food is an integral part of family life. The centerpiece of family functions and holiday gatherings, food means memories. Decisions regarding food purchases are often based on tradition, individual beliefs or religious principles.
Milk in particular is especially personal due to the delicate bond between mother and child.
In Charlie Arnot’s presentation at the 2015 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, he presented a quote from a consumer study: “We trust farmers, but we’re not sure if what you’re doing constitutes farming.”
Personal backgrounds and lifestyles aside, there are universal values that all people share. Both producers and consumers alike can find common ground when referring to such concepts as compassion, truth, family and safety.
Our consumers want transparency and are inherently frightened by the unknown. By establishing a foundation of shared values, conversations with consumers will be more successful. Case studies and research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) report that connecting with common values is three to five times more effective than using facts in a conversation. Our mission is not to just educate, but to build trust in today’s food system.
Arnot, president of the CFI, outlined a three-part model to effectively engage with consumers.
Listen, ask and share
Listen: Before spouting your story and personal experiences, take time to learn about whom you are talking to. Find a connection point by actively listening. Avoid making harsh judgments and jumping to conclusions. Arnot reminded producers and agvocates, “Perception is reality whether or not it’s based on facts.”
Ask: Make it a conversation. Request information about their family, background, lifestyle and values. Ask them questions about the foods they consume. What logic stands behind their purchasing decisions?
Share: Share experiences that will complement their values, answer their questions and reduce their concerns. For example, a conversation with a mother of young children lends itself a great opportunity to focus on the importance of safe milk for children in every household. Be authentic when speaking with consumers, and find common ground. Admit when you don’t know an answer, and offer resources for more information, such as www.bestfoodfacts.org, the CFI resource center and the CFI website.
While this model is a great outline for effective agricultural promotion, it will not change the values and opinions of every consumer.
Actively search for consumers who have legitimate questions and concerns regarding industry practices and the food system.
Avoid being defensive when a consumer doesn’t agree with a comment, and know when to disengage. “It’s not about winning the argument; it’s about sharing values,” explained Arnot.
Recognize that no matter how polite, educational and persuasive you may be, you will not change the opinions of extremist consumers. Instead, spend your time engaging with consumers who are striving for information and have a desire to learn about agriculture. Build a relationship founded on trust with consumers, and be a positive resource for truthful information and accurate answers in the present and the future. PD
Sara Kitchen is a Penn State student and a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania.