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HI-TECH SHOPPERS: The next generation relies on mobile devices to maneuver through its cashless society. Farmers need to adjust how they do business to meet consumer needs.

Changing the consumer perception of farming

College Farmer: Speaking to the "movable middle" will help farmers close the communication gap.

By Will Robinson

Communication has been a buzzword in agriculture for the past few years, whether it is between industry professionals, countries negotiating trade deals or most notably between producers and consumers. But how effective are we in agriculture at communication?

From farmer to farmer, we are very effective. In our ag circles, we know we are producing higher yields and raising livestock more efficiently than ever before. The problem is those outside of the industry are unaware.

Eight years ago, my family started selling pork at different farmers markets in the St. Louis area. This brought to my attention to just how extensive the lack of understanding is about farming practices.

Things such as docking pigs’ tails and clipping their teeth were seen as cruel and harmful actions to the animals, when in reality the practice is done to prevent harm to the sow and to the other piglets. I would often hear questions about pigs eating grass and concerns about them not roaming free on dirt.

At first, I thought these misunderstandings were somewhat comical, but eventually I began to realize that it wasn’t only four or five marketgoers with these types of questions and misconceptions. In my opinion, there are three key reasons for the communication gap between producers and consumers.

Delivering the message

The most obvious one is, at this point, many people are at least three generations removed from the farm. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of agricultural workers dropped by nearly 50% between 1950 and 2000, while the population of the country roughly doubled.

I realize that the average-size farm greatly increased over the decades, but with advancements in technology allowing farmers to do more with fewer employees, fewer people gain firsthand experience in agriculture.

Another strain is communication style. This ties into the demographic of farmers being different from that of the general public. The average age of a farmer is nearly 60 years old. In my experience, I have found that people my age interact and talk to each other differently than we do when interacting with people even five to 10 years older.

It becomes a challenge for farmers to reach and connect with younger demographics because of differences in basic interactions and the tools used for those interactions. The world is constantly shrinking as social media evolves. Why should I read about something when I can hear about it? Why should I listen to something when I can watch it? And with the continued development of virtual reality, why should I view something when I can be immersed in it?

With the continued development and growth of social media, the job description for farmers also is changing. There was a time when being a good farmer meant putting your nose to the grindstone and not stopping until the sun slipped over the horizon.

Farmers no longer have the luxury of allowing themselves to become secluded while producing the best product they can, letting everything else fall into place. Now more than ever, the role of the farmer is to nurture and grow not only crops and livestock, but also the knowledge of those outside of agriculture. What is important to note is the difference between arguing and informing.

Getting them to listen

We must realize that lashing back at groups or individuals who are seeking conflict only negatively affects agriculture. On a bell curve, there are the two ends that are entrenched in their views, but in the center is the movable middle. That is the demographic we should be actively holding a conversation with to inform the moods and beliefs of the public.

Sometimes, I think we as agriculturalists have the mindset of, "Well, I guess I need to educate these people, so then the problems of misconceptions will disappear." Once farmers can build a personal relationship with any consumer, it must be maintained. If we only try to educate and return to our safe havens that are our farms, we will eventually find ourselves back to where we were. It must be a constant two-way conversation.

As farmers, we need to think of ourselves as the product and not the actual food we produce. No other industry has the intimate and delicate role of providing a parent with the peace of mind that we have grown or raised the healthiest and safest food product possible.

For example, if I go to a mechanic I’ve never been to and they tell me it will cost a couple thousand dollars to fix my car, how can I trust them that I’m not getting ripped off? If the mechanic is a good friend of mine, why would I not trust them?

Robinson is a senior majoring in science and agricultural journalism at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Contact him at wtrd58@mail.missouri.edu.

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