The familiar quip about consumers not being interested in agriculture because they get all the food they need at the grocery store is as factual as it is humorous.
Research unfortunately shows most consumers are uninformed about agriculture and not all that interested in finding out about it. Farmers still enjoy a high level of trust, but consumers aren’t sure contemporary production matches their definition or image of farming.
So, does this state of affairs make any difference? If it does, what can be done about it?
The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) answers the first question with a resounding "yes." And it has developed a program that it believes addresses the second.
Charlie Arnot, CFI’s CEO, said farmers need the public’s trust if they are to be able to operate with minimal formalized restrictions from legislation, regulation or market requirements. Such a "social license" to operate comes only when there’s trust and confidence that what the industry is doing is consistent with society’s expectations and values. Considering that voices questioning current food system practices are increasing in number, volume and impact, achieving that trust and confidence clearly is a challenge.
Which is where CFI’s new Farmers Feed US program enters the picture. The program’s goal is to create a strong sense of affinity between U.S. consumers and the farmers who produce their food, using the power of shared values to build consumer trust and confidence in contemporary agriculture.
CFI is doing this with the proactive Farmers Feed US program that, according to Arnot, is designed to "communicate these shared values in a compelling and believable way."
Using the Internet, the approach is being made on an individual state basis because consumers can connect more readily with farmers in their own locale. Programs already are under way in Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana and Iowa, with similar efforts now on the drawing board in California and Wisconsin.
Drawing consumers to the FarmersFeedUS.org website and then to state-specific micro sites is a "Free Groceries for a Year" sweepstakes valued at $5,000. One winner is being selected for each participating state or market in the state.
Spreading the word about the sweepstakes are media messages, including TV and radio spots, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and point-of-sale partnerships with retailers and others in the food system.
Anyone going to the FarmersFeedUS website is asked to select a participating state, a step that brings up pictures of selected farmers in the state and a brief description of each producer’s farm and its location, along with links for learning more about each and for registering.
Going to an individual farmer’s page brings up a sweepstakes registration form and a brief video in which the farmer welcomes the visitor, encourages him/her to register and poses a trivia question about agriculture.
When the visitor completes and submits the sweepstakes registration, the farmer – via another video – answers the trivia question and issues an invitation to click on a "take a tour" link delivering a 60 to 90-second video about the farm operation and the family involved in it. On the same page with the video is more written information about the farm and its crop or livestock. After that video, or during subsequent visits, a visitor can increase chances of winning the free groceries by selecting another farmer and registering again.
The initial promotion period for each state is three months. CFI is developing additional programming that will keep the websites fresh and keep people coming back regularly. Among the possibilities are quarterly contests/trivia, posting of recipes tied into major holidays, offering a "From the Farm" recipe book, blogs and/or webcasts with producers or food industry leaders and "Ask a Farmer" question/suggestion submission tool.
Results from states where the program is operating or where the free groceries give-away has been completed are extremely positive, Arnot said. In Ohio, the contest attracted more than 207,000 registrations, with a total of more than 800,000 pages viewed on the website. Some 11,000 consumers asked to receive further information.
In Missouri, where the initial phase still was under way when this story was written in mid-February, consumers who volunteered to answer a survey after visiting the website overwhelmingly agreed with a statement that farmers on the site were "approachable, knowledgeable and the kind of people I want producing my food."
During the first month of their respective programs, Indiana had recorded almost 50,000 sweepstakes entries and Iowa had 46,000. Michigan counted more than 155,000 contest registrations during the first 76 days of the program there.
Sponsoring agribusiness firms and retailers in each state have collaborated in selecting a representative group of farmers to be featured on that state’s website. The number of farms has ranged from five to eight.
Elaborating on how the program was developed, Arnot said that while consumers’ perceptions of producer and food industry competence are important, providing scientific information and technical data simply is not enough. Surveys show the trust level of consumers is much more significant in shaping their views and shared values are four to five times more important in building trust than demonstrating skill and expertise.
"Maintaining public trust is not an issue of altruism, it’s a good business decision," he observed.
Similarly, "Attacking the attackers of agriculture and our food system does little good because it means you automatically are on the defensive," he added. "Farmers traditionally have had the high moral ground, and they can and should use that to their advantage with a proactive, positive approach."
CFI is a not-for-profit organization combining the membership of The Grow America Project and Best Food Nation, two national initiatives formed in 2006 to increase public understanding about the U.S. food system. CFI’s role is to bring members of the food system together to achieve a higher level of public trust and confidence. The organization does not lobby or advocate individual food companies or brands.
Most research indicates people in our nation have a high degree of comfort in the current food system, Arnot said. However, because issues of shared concern do exist, addressing them in a transparent manner is the best solution, he noted.