Hard work, honesty, respect, appreciation, tradition, nurture and care. These are all words that come to consumers’ minds when asked their opinions of farmers. They like them, and trust farmers over doctors, teachers and police to make decisions for the public’s best interest.
But that’s where the consumer’s confidence in their knowledge about the farming profession ends. What is left is a gap between what a farmer does and how he or she makes a living, and the image that the consumer public has of the modern American farmer.
In 2010 and 2011, the Illinois Farm Bureau – in partnership with Illinois Farm Families; the Illinois Corn Marketing Board; and the Illinois soybean, pork and beef checkoffs – conducted research to determine how much the public knows about farmers and farming. They found that while consumers trust farmers more than most and associate with them positive images such as tight-knit, hard-working families, more than half of consumers do not believe farmers will do the right thing when it comes to specific practices like using too many chemicals, treating animals properly and protecting the environment.
On one hand, consumers believe farmers are honest and hard-working, but on the other hand they have doubts and concerns about how the food they eat is being grown. And what causes this gap? Mainly a disconnect between the farmer and the consumer.
“We found that the majority of consumers were getting their information either from talking with farmers at a farmers market or by driving by a farm,” says Carla Mudd, consumer communications manager for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “They are open to learning about farmers and farming, but they don’t have any way to connect to them.”
Consumers’ main concerns about farming come down to the food they eat and they feed to their families. They expect farms to be efficiently run, environmentally conscious, family-run and active in the local community.
“Farms that are corporate-owned, use pesticides, use antibiotics and raise animals indoors didn’t test well with consumers,” Mudd says. “More than anything, they want to know what is in the food they are feeding their kids.”
The Center for Food Integrity conducted similar research in 2011 to determine the level of trust that exists between consumers and their food providers. This study uncovered the same issues: Consumers trust farmers because they believe farmers share their values, but consumers aren’t sure today’s agriculture practices still qualify as farming.
Because of the growing size of farms and the way they are owned and run, the geographic distance between farmers and those eating their food, and the technological advances in farming, consumers feel alienated from agriculture and practices in food safety, affordability, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. To put it simply: Consumers don’t feel connected to farmers and so they don’t feel connected to their food.
Along with other sectors of the food system, farmers are under ever-increasing pressure to demonstrate that they are running their farms in a way that is consistent with consumers’ values and expectations. Outside sources opposing today’s food system are pursuing litigation, pressuring branded food companies and initiating legislation to change how the system operates. Farmers, especially young farmers who have influence over the future of farming practices, have to find a way to connect to consumers to prevent the gap in communication that causes them to look elsewhere for information about their food.
As a result of the research conducted in Illinois, the Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Farm Families have started a program that invites urban moms to spend a day on a farm and observe the daily operations and what goes into making their food.
“They see what is going on firsthand, and any questions that they have, they can ask directly to the farmers,” Mudd says. “They get their questions answered and hopefully learn something about what really happens on a farm, not what they read on the Internet.”
These moms are consumers who haven’t spent any time on a farm before. They have questions about farming practices and pesticides and why there are so many animals in one space. Instead of turning to newspaper articles about sustainable and organic farming, they can ask the farmers about the tractors’ GPS systems and the antibiotics and the animals being raised indoors. They can see up close how advancements in technology and modern farming practices not only help the farmer produce more on less land, but also benefit consumers.
“We’re not hiding anything,” Mudd says. “We’ve even invited the moms to a hog farm. We tell them to ask questions, take pictures. We hope that they’re leaving with a better understanding, not only of what they are buying and eating but of how it is being grown and raised.
“We want them to see that farmers have nothing to hide. That’s how we’re going to change how consumers view us.”
– Blair Thomas