By Dave Natzke
Emotion plays a role in food-buying decisions, and farmers – including dairy producers – must put a “face” back on their products to rebuild relationships with consumers and maintain their own ability to operate a profitable business, according to leaders of the American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT).
The organization hosted its 2nd Annual AFACT Summit, July 22-23, in Minneapolis, Minn. Theme for this year’s event was “Working Together to Create Solutions.”
Carroll Campbell, fourth-generation Kansas dairy producer and AFACT co-chair, admitted the current economy has many dairy producers in crisis.
“We take great pride in what we produce on our farm,” he said. “But in the current economy, we are losing equity, and we may have to come up with an exit strategy. But one of the most important things we have learned in AFACT is that, while I make business decisions based on science and the facts, that’s not the way to reach consumers. We have to talk about our values.”
“This is an incredibly difficult time, financially, for those of us in the dairy business,” added Indiana dairy producer LuAnn Troxel, who serves as AFACT Communications Team leader. “We realize we all have choices to make. We can get depressed, we can become discouraged, we can continue working silently, we can go into another business altogether. Or we can keep putting out a high-quality, safe food for the world and tell the world our story.”
Liz Doornink, Wisconsin dairy farmer and AFACT co-chair, noted the organization has learned a lot about consumers and food retailers by conducting focus groups.
“They want to understand what we do,” Doornink said. “They want to know who farmers are, why we farm and how we farm. Over the years, farmers have been so busy working that the connection to consumers has been broken. We need to bring that connection back. When we have that relationship, they’re more apt to appreciate and accept what we’re doing. Everybody understands that more food will be needed to feed a growing population, but they don’t understand how we’re going to do it.
“It’s time for us to come out of hiding and share our stories,” she continued. “Sharing our story is not a ‘choice’ anymore. It’s something we have to do.”
One means to do that is through understanding and embracing “social networks” via the computer. AFACT is helping producers feel more comfortable telling their stories through “AFACT Advocate” training and helping build familiarity with social networking tools.
“Dairy producers may not be able to spend a day (traveling and speaking to consumer groups),” Doornink explained. “But they can share their thoughts and values online.”
Michele Payn-Knoper, founder of Cause Matters Corp., a company designed to help people – especially those in agriculture – with advocacy training, grassroots marketing, fundraising and sales training, provided Summit attendees a crash course on social media, including, Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to agricultural consumer advocacy, social media is the most valuable tool – besides face-to-face meetings – in her eight-year experience, she said.
Payn-Knoper said there currently are 225 million users of Facebook, and Twitter grew 1,400% between February 2008 and 2009.
“These are large groups of consumers that agriculture can reach out to and inform,” she said. “By using these tools, a personal relationship can be built, even while sitting hundreds of miles apart.”
Payn-Knoper said social media is called “social” for a reason. A picture and small biography is essential for building producer/consumer relations on whatever social media tool you use. However, she warned, the window of opportunity to be proactive using these tools is closing. By the end of 2009, Payn-Knoper fears agriculture could lose its edge with these tools.
AFACT was created a couple of years ago by dairy farmers concerned over the potential loss of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) as a tool for improved milk production efficiency. Since then, animal rights’ activists have been successful in advancing restrictions on some livestock management practices, and media and marketing blitzes surrounding “green,” “sustainable” and “local” generally attempt to portray modern agriculture negatively. The organization’s 2nd Annual AFACT Summit sought to reach beyond dairy, and included presentations by:
• California egg producer Ryan Armstrong and dairy farmer Ray Prock Jr., who shared their experiences with California’s Proposition 2.
• Gary Thome, a Minnesota swine farmer, swho hared his farm’s experience with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
• Len Corzine, Illinois crop farmer, who discussed restrictions on technologies used in crop production.
• Alex Avery, director of Research and Education at the Hudson Institute, who discussed movements that restrict new technologies in food production, and the implications for future global population growth and food needs.
• Washington State University scientist Jude Capper shared her research showing that U.S. dairy cow numbers have dropped from 25 million in 1944 to about 9 million today, noting dairy’s “carbon footprint” has declined sharply in the past 6 decades.
A diverse panel was featured on the second day of the Summit. Panelists were Vonda Johnson, consumer/mother from Minnesota; Andrea Gauthier, employee at Taher Food Management Services, which is also responsible for food purchasing for the Minnesota School Lunch program; and Mitch Davis, general manager of Davis Family Dairies (Davisco Foods International).
Johnson and Gauthier said they use the Internet to evaluate food product claims, trying to visit multiple sites to get a balanced message. Both said they would appreciate the ability to link to local producers as a source of information.
“From a consumer perspective, it would be great to connect directly with a producer.” Johnson explained. “The science might make me think, but if I trust somebody, that would help me decide.”
Johnson, who grew up on a Wisconsin beef farm, said she is amazed at the technology utilized in dairy farming today.
“The cow is so well taken care of. To produce on a bigger scale, there has to be technology. I don’t worry about technology affecting the food,” she said. “I think the media drives the consumer much of the time. Oprah has a lot of power. Producers have to combat ‘empty-headed listening.’”
Davis, who travels throughout the world, finds irony in the debate over technological advances in food production.
“In my business travels throughout China, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, my observation is that those who have technology and are benefitting from it take it for granted and try to distance themselves from it; those who don’t have technology are desperate to get it,” he said.
Davis addressed the hot-button issue – rbST – that led to the creation of AFACT.
“We’ve had a lot of interaction on rbST-free milk,” Davis said. “I believe firmly that fluid milk processors and retailers created the rbST issue, and they did it in a short-sighted, desperate move to cannibalize the available market. Instead of going out and touting and promoting the nutritional value of milk, they shoved their competitors out of the way by differentiating their product. Now, consumers are confused and frustrated.”
The resulting fallout affected his family’s business.
“We had a large customer who wanted to market a reduced-fat cheese that was produced from cows not supplemented with rbST,” he explained. “We told them we needed a few days to determine the premium we would need for our dairy producers. We surveyed our producers, and came back to them in eight days. When we went back to the customer, they told us there was no need for discussion, because a large plant in California said they would do it ‘free.‘
“It represents cannibalization of the industry,” he continued. “Milk is a commodity product. You can add value to a commodity product, but to differentiate it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I think the whole category suffers. It seems like a lot of what we do in this industry is a disservice to our consumers. Nutrition should be the first thing. It is our opportunity.”
Gauthier noted the push for “organic” and “local” is creating hardships for schools and foodservice industries.
“As a foodservice company, and the way federal and state funding is going for schools, we’re being ‘pushed to the bottom’ when it comes to prices,” she explained. “At the same time, we’re being pushed toward more organic, locally produced food. They want a ‘dollar menu’ with organic and locally produced food. The people implementing these programs don’t understand the costs.”
Opportunities identified for AFACT to pursue were the continued education of consumers, retailers and producers through face-to-face meetings and by incorporating online dialogues. Recruitment of more members and advocates in all areas of agriculture was also recognized as a vital step to inform the masses that technology has a necessary role in modern agriculture production.
Up next: World Dairy Expo
AFACT will be at World Dairy Expo, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, sharing its message, making new friends in the industry and educating
consumers. Look for AFACT in the Exhibition Hall Lobby (between the doors directly across from the Hall E entrance).
New (and renewing) members joining AFACT will receive t-shirts.
For more information, visit www.itisafact.org, AFACT can also be found on Facebook by searching for AFACT, or follow on Twitter, under itisAFACT.