Dialoguing with consumers- What do consumers hear?

Apr 20, 2012
by WLJ

An alliance of 75 farmerand rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners, called the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), has formed a collaborative effort to lead a dialogue with American consumers about agricultural food production. The alliance represents organizations that support agricultural producers who are stewards of the environment, responsibly care for their animals, and maintain a strong business and community focus.

USFRA recently commissioned a study to learn more about dialoguing with consumers about food production. With concern that the disconnect between skeptical consumers and food producers has widened, US- FRA’s goal is to better understand how to communicate with consumers.

Study results established that consumers and agricultural producers are on different wave lengths when it comes to communication and understanding messages producers are sending and consumers are interpreting. For example, when food production agriculture says “Modern food production methods are proven safe,” what consumers are actually hearing in this message is, ‘we don’t know if pesticides, antibiotics or hormones are safe in the long-term and neither do you.’ Another example of misinterpretation of messages identified from the study was producers often say “modern food production is necessary to feed the world,” and consumers interpret this message as, ‘I care more about the wellbeing of my family than of the world.’ With approximately 95 percent of today’s agricultural production conducted by family farms, food production agriculture has worked to share this message with consumers. However, again, consumers’ interpretation of a family farm is not always the same as how food production agriculture would categorize it. When food production agriculture says “the industry is primarily made up of family-owned farms,” consumers hear this message and interpret it to be ‘that family farms are local or organic, not where most food comes from.’ To further gauge consumers’ understanding of agriculture food production, the study asked consumers their best guess on the percentage of American farms and ranches owned and run by big corporations vs. families. Consumers’ guess was 30 percent of the farms were family owned and run and 70 percent were owned or controlled by big corporations.

This study has emphasized the importance of communication with consumers and highlighted how food production messages are being interpreted by consumers. In future iGrow columns, I will share additional findings from the USFRA study as the results present an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to hear directly from consumers, gain a greater understanding of how consumers interpret messages, and present an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the food we produce.

The study commissioned by USFRA consisted of an online survey completed by a cross-section of consumers (n=1,400) who are involved in making food decisions and purchases for their household, a selection of consumers ranked in the top 20 percent of society based on income and/or education, and food communicators (professionals who influence those outside their immediate family’s food decisions). — Lynn Gordon, South Dakota State University Extension