Don’t lie. You’ve thought it before. You’ve heard the talking heads and watched the footage of angry protesters. You’ve seen more rules and regulations passed every year, and it rankles.
Then one day, down at the co-op or the diner or the implement store, some good old boy who’s had it up to here puts into words what everyone’s thought at one point or another: “Why do people have such a problem with farmers? We’re the good guys. If they don’t want to eat, they don’t have to.”
The agriculture industry is vastly different than it was a generation ago; we all know that. Expansion, vertical integration and incredible technological advances in every area from irrigation to pest management have made agriculture more streamlined and (more importantly) efficient than growers 50 years ago could have dreamed. But with those strides has come and increased degree of scrutiny, skepticism and, it could be argued, downright antagonism from the consuming public. And it’s easy as a grower or processor to get annoyed and even bitter at the consumers who ultimately pay our bills.
In 2007, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) was founded to research and combat the negative perception that so annoys food processors, restaurant owners, grocers and—perhaps most of all—growers. A not-for-profit organization, CFI’s stated mission is to build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system. Its membership comes from every segment of the food chain; farmers and ranchers, universities, food processors, state-based commodity groups, restaurants, retailers and food companies are all included.
“One of the things that oftentimes producers and others in the food system are frustrated by,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI, “is the increasing level of skepticism or the lack of trust in what we are and what we do.” While that frustration is more than understandable, CFI’s work is aimed at giving consumers less reason for distrust and producers less reason for frustration.
That frustration most often stems from a lack of understanding of the person at the end of the supply chain—the consumer. “I think there’s a sense that those in agriculture believe that they’re doing what’s right and so they’re frustrated and sometimes defensive when there is that public pushback,” says Arnot. “We try to address that by educating the public, but the public doesn’t want to be educated, they want to be engaged. They want to ask questions that are relevant to them. They don’t want to learn about farming; they want to learn about the issues that are relevant to them as consumers.”
Consumers have historically been very trusting of growers, Arnot says. But the last couple decades have seen an inverse relationship develop between agriculture advancements and public trust. Arnot says that mending that relationship depends on embracing those questions and skepticism and, in spite of pride, giving consumers what they want: a voice.
“The notion that we are independent starts to fade the moment we sell a product,” says Arnot. “As long as you have a customer, you are interdependent. So we’ve got to be able to meet those customer and consumer needs as farmers and producers.”
Customers and Consumers
When discussing transparency and food integrity, Arnot says it’s important to discern between a consumer and a customer. Growers’ customers are the people and companies who buy fresh potatoes from growers—processors, packers and the like. Consumers are the people at the end of the line who buy the final potato product, whatever it is, to eat. He also points out that while growers may not be selling directly to consumers, consumer concerns should still be of utmost importance to growers.
“Because the food system is so highly integrated today, if there is a problem at any level of the supply chain, they’re all connected,” says Arnot. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the farm actually working on the land or frying french fries in a restaurant, we’re all connected and have a stake in making sure that consumers have a hand in what we’re doing.”
All of which is why CFI is so dedicated not only to educating consumers as to what goes down on the farm, but to opening a dialogue where both sides know what is important to the other. Though there has generally been dissatisfaction with a lack of communication up and down the supply chain, Arnot says growers and others along the supply chain have become more open and receptive to engaging in that public conversation over the last five years, which generally is good for everyone’s business.
Trust in the Farmer But Not the Farm
One of CFI’s primary goals is to truly understand the mind of the consumer. When it was founded in 2007, Arnot says they asked the same questions growers do: “Why come after us? We’re the good guys.”
The answers CFI has dug up are at once confusing and enlightening. Consumers as a whole say they trust farmers and ranchers; it’s the newer processes, the use of chemicals, the size and scale of modern farming, that they have a hard time with. “What we hear from consumers is they trust farmers but they’re not sure they trust farming,” says Arnot. “Generally they’ll say, ‘I think farmers are great, but I’m not sure I like how they do what they do.’ They make that distinction.”
While that may be a distinction that makes little sense to growers, it’s one that CFI believes needs to be acknowledged and addressed. “We’ve got to be able to close that gap and build that connection,” Arnot continues, “so that consumers understand that, you bet, I do farm differently than my father or grandfather farmed, but you can still count on me to be sure these potatoes are safe and nutritious and that we’re protecting the environment.
A Generational Solution
Growers are, as a rule, a solution-driven bunch. More patient than most, they still expect to solve a problem within the next growing season or two. Drought? We’ll adjust our crop rotations and water schedules. Nutrient deficiency? Change the fertilizer program. Yet when it comes to consumer trust, many growers are bewildered at the time it takes to change public perception.
Arnot says that there continues to exist a growing consumer skepticism despite the work of CFI and other trade organization and agriculture groups. Negative public attitudes toward agriculture have become very deep-seated over the last couple decades, and it’s very difficult to change them.
“We’re not going to fix this with a single campaign or public relations effort,” Arnot says. “We’re looking at a generational challenge. This is a problem we’re going to be faced with over the next 20 to 25 years.”
My Values are Your Values
The one constant on both the grower and consumer ends of the spectrum is shared values. If a consumer believes he shares similar values with those in the food system, he is more likely to trust that system. As farms have grown over the last generation or so, consumer perception of shared values has shrunk. It’s easy to share values person-to-person, but what are the values of a multinational food company, or of a restaurant, or of a food processor?
“Because we’ve changed, people aren’t sure they can trust us,” Arnot explains. “They don’t have a technical understanding of how we do it. But how we do it is less important than helping people understand that we care very deeply about the things that are important to them. We share their values for things like food safety, environmental protection and strong rural communities.”
And integrity. Integrity is something everyone values, from the grower planting his crop to the mom feeding her brood with it. Integrity is all anyone can ask for, and it’s no less than growers are willing to give.