As I drove past a local equipment dealership recently, my eye wandered over to a long row of shiny new four-wheel drive tractors sitting on the lot. As I admired them, I wondered how many of the people travelling past on the nearby highway who have never set foot on a farm really understand what those tractors do, because more than a few recent surveys suggest the majority of the general public now knows very little about agriculture.
“One schoolteacher told me she took her class of inner-city kids that have never been out of the city to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto,” recounts Crystal Mackay, executive director of Farm and Food Care, Ontario (FFCO). “As soon as they walked into the dairy barn, the first student said, ‘look at the giraffe.’”
FFCO’s mission is to raise public awareness of Canadian agriculture. And given that youngster’s inability to distinguish between a cow and a giraffe, Mackay knows there is a lot of work yet to do, and there are stereotypes to contend with.
“There’s the Old MacDonald thinking, where the public has a very positive view of farming and farmers,” Mackay says. “For the most part, it’s romantic and idealistic. The flip side of it, which our critics use against us and is illustrated by movies like “Food Inc.,” is the factory farm image, that farmers just care about the profit.”
But as a survey commissioned by FFCO reveals, most urban people really don’t think about agriculture very often, no matter which view they have. And just as the public remains blissfully ignorant about agricultural practices, farmers seem to suffer from a similar problem when it comes to understanding how to bolster consumer confidence in the food they grow.
“When the public asks a question about hormones in beef, for instance, the farmer’s normal response is why we use hormones and how they help us grow beef more efficiently,” Mackay explains. “That does not address the heart of the public’s concern about food safety. It’s the emotion-based (question) versus the logic-based (response).”
That makes it kind of a farmers-are-from-Mars, consumers-are-from-Venus situation.
“As farmers we’re technical specialists,” Mackay says. “We’re very focused on the technical knowledge, very much focused on how we do things. The public knows little or nothing about farming and asks emotion-based questions. The basis of most of their questions is self-centred, about their own health first, and food safety after that. So when a consumer is asking a question about a farm practice, it often ties back to what are you doing on your farm that will that affect me through the water I drink or the food I eat.”
Then what should agriculture’s response be when controversies like GMO-free marketing campaigns arise? Do we embrace this as an opportunity to sell higher-priced, specially-grown products for niche markets, or do we try to discourage other retailers from taking that kind of marketing tack?
“That’s a really tough one,” says Mackay. “There are two ways to look at it.” One is it’s positive for the consumer and for the niche company because they’re offering choice. Unfortunately, the second is based on fear, and the implication is that if you don’t eat the niche product, you’ve made the wrong choice because the regular product isn’t safe — no matter what the science says.
“There are individual companies that will look for a competitive advantage, but we’ve learned the hard way that to use food safety is a really bad idea. You should never market on food safety,” says Mackay. “That’s very short-term thinking that puts a dent in the public trust of all food in the long term. We need to expand that thinking to environmental claims and animal welfare practices.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for niche food markets.
“A way is to offer (perceived premium food products) in a non-confrontational way, saying we’re offering choice. Like organics, say here’s this product. Here’s what it means and here’s what it costs. But let every person who just wants to buy regular milk at the grocery store not feel like a bad parent.”
Farmers and other industry players can help make that work by remembering consumer questions are emotion-based. We need to reassure them what we’re providing with modern farming practices is a safe, quality product all across the food spectrum. But if that means shattering the romantic Old MacDonald myth, can we keep the trust inherent in that view and still bring consumers’ awareness up to speed?
“We want to bridge that gap between the expectations and what real farms look like today,” explains Mackay. “What I would say (to the public) is Old MacDonald’s kids have gone to university and they’re home running the farm now, so it’s larger, it’s more specialized, they use technology, but you know what? They still operate it with the same care, commitment and values their grandparents had.”
“If anything, they’re doing a better job caring for the environment with technology. They’re doing a better job caring for their animals by investing in research and trying new things. We can’t lose the heart of the family farm and that positive impression Canadians have of us. We want to bring them along and explain that big isn’t necessarily evil.”
A recent FFCO project proved it’s possible to do that.
“We’ve tested it with our Ipsos research,” Mackay reports. “What we did was take six minutes of clips out of “Food Inc.” Then we took six minutes of clips out of our virtual chicken-farm tour, which showed a real farmer walking through his very modern barn explaining how he did it.”
“We used chicken farming specifically and tough topics like animal welfare and antibiotics. We showed those across Canada. We tried to pick the toughest crowd, which I would say are innovators and early adopters who use very critical thinking. The virtual farm tour videos came out as the clear winner in these focus groups. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”
It also proved farmers, themselves, can be the industry’s best spokespersons.
“The proven method is to let farmers tell their own stories,” confirms Mackay. “But it needs to be co-ordinated to have enough impact.”
That, it turns out, is really the trick. Farmers can’t — and shouldn’t be expected — to go it alone. The entire industry needs to consolidate its public relations efforts. Even compartmentalized producer groups promoting their own segments of the industry aren’t enough. Food is what consumers want to know about. They don’t break that category down, and neither should farmers.
“When we would be at a farm show, people would ask us all kinds of questions, not just about cows,” says Mackay. “They just want to know about their food. To just be a farm group advocating for one sector we found was just too limiting. (Efforts) for one product or commodity are just not large enough to be effective. It’s like a quilt that needs to be pieced together.”
“We really need buy in. Does an Alberta canola grower want to put money in the same pot as a P.E.I. potato grower or an Ontario beef farmer, and also Maple Leaf Foods and McDonald’s? We should all have one collective strategy with a 25-year approach on how to talk to the public about food in Canada,” Mackay says. “The ultimate challenge is we (as farmers) are only two per cent of the population. We can’t afford to subdivide even more.”