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Building a better bridge between farmers and consumers

The gap between producers and consumers is still way too deep, but new programs are proving they can make a difference


Although public and private marketing campaigns aimed at bridging the gap between farmers and consumers are making real strides, two studies conducted in 2014 point out just how far apart the two groups are in their attitudes to modern agriculture and food production.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) commissioned a $100,000 qualitative research study from Strategic Counsel last spring that said not only that consumers don’t really know much about agriculture, but also that they think it is stuck in the past and is neither modern, innovative nor progressive.

The urban and rural consumers in the survey also had a negative attitude to the term agri-food, which conjures visions of chemical enhancement and bio-engineering.

Those consumers also felt the future of agriculture is fraught because of a shrinking land base, because the next generation isn’t interested in farming, and also because current farm practices are environmentally unsustainable and potentially harmful.

Consumers also believe we’re on a track toward fewer, larger “factory farms.”

The Strategic Council report said many consumers get their information from the grocery store — they see and buy a lot of imported produce, and think that Canada is a net food importer.

The general feeling is that the country’s competitiveness in the food industry has “declined sharply in the last several decades.”

In contrast, a study released by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) that canvassed farmers in the fall said that they are optimistic about the future. Just over half of them plan to adopt new technologies, it reported, and 44 per cent plan to expand their businesses.

Almost all farmers in the study said they are doing things to protect the environment, such as investing in energy-efficient machinery, improving their management of hazardous products and protecting waterways. Of the 28 per cent of farmers who said they were retiring, more than four out of five said they were transferring the farm to family members.

AAFC said it commissioned its study to increase the public’s understanding and interest in the sector. The idea was to get a better handle on public perceptions in order to figure out ways to garner support for what the ministry calls “a competitive sector with strong growth potential.”

The stakes are high. Canadian consumers lay out close to $200 billion a year for food, beverages and tobacco, or a fifth of their personal spending.

Both public and private organizations are working in different ways to encourage consumers to not only spend more domestically, but also to get behind the research, innovation, science-based regulations, financial resources and other steps needed to maintain a thriving agricultural sector.

“AAFC used the public opinion research findings for the design and content of the new Discover Agriculture section,” said Miriam Wood, the manager of the ministry’s communications branch in an email. “We are continuing to engage in marketing activities aimed at the general public such as open houses, exhibitions, and augmented content on to help generate interest and boost awareness of the agriculture sector and its importance to science, innovation and the economy.”

In the private sector, the Agriculture More Than Ever campaign, launched by Farm Credit Canada (FCC) in May 2012, is “an industry-driven cause to improve perceptions and create positive dialogue about Canadian agriculture,” according to its website. It has a $1-million budget and is run by a few FCC marketing staff who are dedicated full time to the campaign.

Earlier in 2012, Farm and Food Care Ontario was formed from two farm advocate groups that had promoted livestock and crops, respectively, since 1988. It has a $2-million budget to provide the public with information on food, farming and associated businesses.

Both groups agree that one of the best ways into the hearts of the Canadian public seems to be through real-life storytelling by credible spokespeople — the farmers themselves.

“People trust farmers but not agriculture,” said Lyndon Carlson, senior vice-president of marketing at Farm Credit Canada (FCC). “And people believe people who have passion about what they do.”

Carlson said that “agriculture” brings to mind large corporations, and doesn’t have the personality of farmers.

The “Ag More than Ever” website offers infographics, posters, presentations and brochures that point out many positive facts about the industry and its importance, including that one in eight Canadian jobs is in agriculture and agri-food, and that food and beverage processing is Canada’s largest manufacturing industry with $92.9 billion in shipments.

But facts can only go so far.

“The public is not as moved by a fact as by a story — story is what makes people engaged,” Carlson said. “The key to influencing public opinion is to build relationships — once you have these, then they trust your information.”

“The public is interested in knowing more about their food, they don’t want to be educated about farming,” said Crystal MacKay, executive director of Farm and Food Care Ontario in an email. “It’s a subtle but important difference.”

MacKay’s group released its popular Real Dirt on Farming publication in November 2014. It’s a 52-page document that’s chockablock with facts about Canadian agriculture, how different kinds of farms work, profiles of farmers and researchers and more. The online version even includes short YouTube videos to show and tell real farm stories. It is going nationwide for the first time, with a distribution target of one million.

At “Ag More Than Ever,” more than 550 individuals and groups have signed up for the campaign’s Agvocate program. Agvocates are equipped with template PowerPoint presentations, speaking points, questions and answers and other materials to help them when they spread the word at local meetings, classrooms and conferences.

Another 330-plus corporations, businesses, organizations and even provincial governments like Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick have signed partnership agreements in which they promise to speak up for the industry with their employees, customers, members and stakeholders.

Most recently, FCC partnered with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to produce the “Farm to Table” supplement in the November 25 Globe and Mail.

In terms of popularity, both organizations have put up some impressive numbers, especially in social media, each with thousands of Facebook fans and Twitter followers.

In one of its more successful projects, Farm and Food Care partnered with Foodland Ontario on a number of activities during Local Food Week in June, including hosting CITY-TV’s Breakfast Television live on location at a farm, touring city reporters around a large beef feedlot and grain farm, holding a Twitter party, and even conducting some “guerrilla marketing” that had farmers giving out apples at Toronto City Hall while saying, “thanks for buying our food.”

The project, which cost $70,000 and took six weeks of front-end work, recently won a Best of CAMA (Canadian Agricultural Marketing Association) award.

“Our goal was to reach one million people in a week with positive messages about local food and the farmers who grow it,” said MacKay. “With all our partners’ help from across Ontario, we reached over 25 million people.”

Both organizations are measuring the effectiveness of their overall campaigns in the coming months.

Carlson said the “Ag More Than Ever” staff will be conducting a survey “probably sometime in 2015” to follow up on their 2013 survey.

Farm and Food Care Ontario is also running its attitudes survey again in 2015, and will combine it with food and farming research that the Centre for Food Integrity does in the U.S., so they have North American data. The organization and its predecessors have been measuring public opinion since 2001.

“This work is really important for us to ask the audience and really understand consumer questions and concerns versus what media or special interest groups might want people to believe,” MacKay said.

Results of the research will help shape the future of these marketing campaigns, and whether they can bridge the consumer-farmer attitude gap.

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