2nd Annual AFACT Summit stresses solutions through communications.
By Dave Natzke
Emotion plays a role in food-buying decisions. Farmers – including dairy producers – must put a “face” back on their products to rebuild relationships with consumers – while maintaining 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 the event was “Working Together to Create Solutions.”
Carroll Campbell, fourth-generation Kansas dairy producer and AFACT co-chair, admitted the economy has many producers in crisis.
“We take great pride in what we produce,” he said. “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 we 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 for those of us in the dairy business,” added Indiana dairy producer LuAnn Troxel, AFACT communications team leader. “We realize we all have choices to make. We can get depressed, become discouraged and continue working silently. Or, we can keep putting out a high-quality, safe food and tell the world our story.”
Liz Doornink, Wisconsin dairy producer 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. “It’s not a ‘choice’ anymore. It’s something we must do.”
One means to do that is through understanding and embracing “social networks” via the computer. AFACT is helping producers tell their stories through “AFACT Advocate” training, and building 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., helps people – especially those in agriculture – with advocacy training. She provided Summit attendees a crash course on Facebook and Twitter, noting social media is the most valuable tool for ag consumer advocacy – besides face-to-face meetings – in her eight-year experience.
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 who 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 are essential for building producer/consumer relations. However, she warned, the window of opportunity is closing.
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. AFACT Summit organizers sought to reach beyond dairy, and included presentations by:
• Egg producer Ryan Armstrong and dairy farmer Ray Prock Jr. shared their experiences with California’s Proposition 2.
• Minnesota swine farmer Gary Thome shared his farm’s experience with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
• Len Corzine, Illinois crop farmer, discussed technology restrictions in crop production.
• Alex Avery, director of Research and Education at the Hudson Institute, 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.
A diverse panel featured Vonda Johnson, consumer/mother from Minnesota; Andrea Gauthier, employee at Taher Food Management Services, with responsibilities for foodservice and school lunch program food purchasing; and Mitch Davis, general manager of Davisco Foods Int.
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 for information.
“It would be great to connect directly with a producer,” Johnson said. “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. Oprah has a lot of power. Producers have to combat ‘empty-headed listening.’”
Davis finds irony in the debate over technological advances in food production.
“In my business travels throughout China, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, 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 AFACT’s creation.
“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 in a short-sighted move to cannibalize the available market. Instead of promoting milk’s nutritional value, they shoved their competitors out of the way by differentiating their product. Now, consumers are confused and frustrated.”
The fight affected his family’s business. “We had a large customer who wanted to market a reduced-fat cheese 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.’
“Milk is a commodity product” he continued. “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 is our opportunity.”
■ For more information, visit www.itisafact.org. AFACT can also be found on Facebook by searching for AFACT, or follow on Twitter, under itisAFACT.
■ AFACT will be represented at World Dairy Expo, located in the Exhibition Hall lobby, directly across from the Hall E entrance.