By Elizabeth Wyss
My father is a natural-born historian. As a child, I grew up hearing about the history of the town and of our business.
The Russellville Locker and Feed Store began in 1949. When my dad was a kid, he delivered groceries around town in brown paper bags. Shocking to me was that none of those bags carried frozen pizza. It was not available in town during that era. Hearing all this gave me a glimpse into a different world, a different time.
Looking back now, the history of Russellville, our family's multigenerational business and even the introduction of frozen pizza to mid-Missouri provide an excellent snapshot of the rapid and impactful changes in our country's food system over the past 70 years.
The availability and variety of food has exploded since 1949. Starting with pizza and frozen dinners and expanding to gluten-free and organic options, the American food system is offering consumers more choices than ever before, relatively cheap.
Advances in production agriculture, the development of niche markets and changes in consumer preference allowed all of this to come about. In addition to wide food options for consumers, retailers and producers carry and advertise whatever options they choose to offer their consumers, such as organic, all-natural or free-range.
This rapid advancement comes at a cost for the agricultural industry in terms of consumer misconceptions and misinformation. However, it also presents agriculturalists with opportunities to display the wonders of our American food system to curious consumers.
In the past year, my family remodeled and rebranded the Russellville Locker, with the help of several local farm families, into The Covered Bridge Market. We added grocery sales back into the equation, but the most shocking thing to me — a huge proponent of conventional agriculture — was when Dad wanted to advertise locally grown, grass-fed beef.
As an agricultural communicator, I was aware of the effects a label like that have on a consumer without a connection to agriculture. What if that made them think corn-fed beef was inferior? What if our business, very much in support of conventional agricultural practices, gave them the wrong idea with that "local, homegrown, grass-fed" label? Were we doing our industry an injustice by marketing this way?
Dad had an answer. In a world of near-miraculous food production, we need to respect consumer choice.
As a business, we have both the means and the opportunity to raise grass-fed beef, so why begrudge a consumer of that choice? A consumer who wants grass-fed beef is offering us more than their money, though. They are offering us an educational opportunity.
Since we’ve offered grass-fed beef, my dad encouraged every purchaser to try one corn-fed steak with specific instructions to try them both and see what they prefer. When they purchase a steak from us, they get more information about the production of each steak, straight from the mouth of the man that processed, and often raised, the animal it came from.
Regardless of the customers’ preferred steak, they have learned a little more about agriculture than they knew before and have had a positive one-on-one interaction with a real agricultural producer.
As agriculturalists, we have the opportunity to show consumers that the food system that brought the first frozen pizzas to my hometown still is making great strides in serving them safe, affordable and delicious food with more variety than ever.
Wyss is a senior in science and agricultural journalism at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.