It’s a common lament among agricultural folks: “We need to educate consumers.” I’ve written more than a few columns over the past year on the challenges with this frequently-cited frustration, but suffice it to say that at least some portion of the gap between producers and consumers stems from a general lack of understanding by consumers of how and why food producers do certain things on the farm.
Branded-beef giant Certified Angus Beef of Wooster, Ohio is taking a novel approach to helping bridge the gap. Choosing to focus on a segment of the population with which they have significant influence – retailers, distributors and restaurant professionals – the company says it has made a tradition of taking CAB licensees to a working cattle farm whenever they visit the company’s headquarters in Northwest Ohio.
“The more our licensees know about the production side of the beef business, the better it will make them at selling and marketing that product,” explains Margaret Coleman, CAB’s assistant director of education. Coleman says licensees take a field trip of sorts to the Grace L. Drake Agricultural Laboratory at Ohio State University’s Agriculture Technical Institute, where farm manager Casey Meek leads tours and answers questions on a variety of production-related topics. (In the interest of full discloser, I am a graduate of OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)
The OSU facility houses a 110-head commercial herd of mostly Angus or Angus-influenced cattle, divided into fall and spring calving groups. Meek says the operation is a typical production herd despite its unique role in the university system.
“We try not to do anything that a normal farm wouldn’t do,” he says. “When we need to vaccinate cows, students come out and we teach them how to vaccinate.” Students also learn nutrition, genetics and other basic management practices.
All progeny are finished on the farm and harvested at a local processing facility. ATI is installing a Temple Grandin-designed handling facility as part of a focus on low-stress management.
Meek says animal care discussions are fairly common on the tours he hosts for non-farm folks. “We get all different levels of people out here, from those who raise cattle to folks who have never been on a farm.” The students themselves, in fact, come from a similar diversity of backgrounds and levels of experience.
“When people leave,” Coleman says, “they get a better understanding of what production is really like and the care that farmers and ranchers have for their livestock.”
In addition to basic concerns over handling and husbandry, Meek says hormone implantation is a frequent source of questions from tour participants. The discussion always leads to an explanation of the role of implants in the proper context, as with other similar topics appearing in popular media.
Agricultural efforts to educate consumers can take on many forms; kudos to CAB and Ohio State for reaching out to some of the most important consumer influencers at the table.