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How to bridge the disconnect between agriculture and consumers?

My Generation: Despite millions of dollars invested in telling our farm stories, less than a quarter of Americans deeply trust what they hear about food production. Here’s what the gap looks like and how to bridge it.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

June 18, 2024

6 Min Read
Close-up of hands holding corn kernels
OUR HANDS: We can sure produce a good crop in the American Midwest, but consumers still aren’t too sure about it. Holly Spangler

At a Glance

  • U.S. farmers have invested millions of dollars to bridge the consumer disconnect to agriculture.
  • Less than 25% of U.S. adults have a high degree of trust in information they get about food production.
  • Consumers believe GMO crops could help grow more food but may cause cancer, autism and more.

There I was, an average Midwestern farmwife, standing in a coffee shop.

But the coffee shop was in a hip Chicago neighborhood, and I was surrounded by urban consumers. I was there to explain what modern agriculture looks like, and after I was introduced, one of the nicest women you’ll ever meet came over to say hello. Her name was Katherine. She said she’d never guess I was a farmer.

“Really? Why?” I asked.

Katherine didn’t miss a beat. “You’re dressed just like us. You’re, like, a hot farm mom!”

I had no words but finally found a couple: “What did you think we wear?!”

That’s when Katherine laughed at herself and said, “I don’t know, I guess I thought you’d wear plaid shirts and bib overalls! But that’s ridiculous, right?!”

It was in that moment that Katherine realized how much she misunderstood modern agriculture. And it was also in that same moment that I realized: Our efforts to educate consumers are failing miserably.

But why?

It’s a big “miss” — as in, misinformation and misunderstandings leading to missed opportunities to teach people about food and farming.

Some organizations spread inaccurate information, and consumers buy it because they have no evidence to the contrary. Today, very few urban consumers grew up visiting a grandparent’s farm.

Related:Let’s talk — not ‘educate’

So it’s up to us to connect consumers with facts and share how farming actually works — and how the farmer down the road likely has a lot in common with the folks in town, something Katherine discovered when we met.

U.S. farmers have invested millions of dollars over the past 20 years to help consumers understand where their food comes from and how modern ag helps feed the world. In Illinois, our leading farm and commodity organizations banded together in 2008 to form the Illinois Farm Families coalition. To fight the agriculture disconnect, the coalition has produced two Super Bowl commercials, bussed moms to farms, bussed farmers to Chicago, and reminded Illinoisians that farm families own and operate 96% of all farms in Illinois, via the We Are the 96 campaign.

But clearly, there’s more work to do.

Consumer disconnect 

A 2022 University of Minnesota study revealed that just 24% of U.S. adults have a high degree of trust in the information they receive about food production. Gen Z (ages 20 to 27) comes in even lower, with just 17% claiming a “high trust level.” And only 27% of all survey respondents said they had a “very favorable” impression of U.S. agriculture and food production.

It’s no surprise that farmers feel misunderstood or even under attack.

Related:Corn makes Super Bowl commercial

Farmers look at numbers, and not just their profit margins, which are expected to be 25% lower in 2024.

The world population hit 8 billion in 2023. The United Nations expects that number to climb to 9 billion by 2037 and 10 billion by 2057. And according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, farmers will need to produce 50% more to feed the world by 2050.

But how do you produce more food when the land you need is disappearing? American farmers lost 21 million acres of farmland from 2017 to 2023, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. And that trend does not show signs of turning around.

Our water resources are dwindling in some regions, and across the entire U.S., wild weather swings are creating droughts and floods and more extreme weather overall. National weather data show billion-dollar weather events have more than doubled the past five years compared to the 1980-2024 average.

So how will we feed all these people?

More to the point — do consumers really care if there are more mouths to feed, less land to farm and worse weather to contend with?

I really doubt it. A lot of the stuff I just told you may garner sympathy from other farmers, but it will likely get an eyes-glazed-over response from consumers. What really connects with consumers? Shared values. When you share that you worry about the safety of your drinking water the same way they do, they will pay attention. And when you share that you want your family to eat healthy and safe food the way they do, they will listen.

Related:Telling Mexicans the truth about U.S. corn

Look, we do have solutions. U.S. agriculture technology is making the most of land and water: precision-placed seed, biologicals, sprayers with artificial intelligence that spray only weeds, ensuring water safety.

But the folks that need to be fed aren’t so sure about it.

Still, if you can connect with them, you will have plenty to talk about. Like, explaining the science behind GMO crops and how they don’t cause cancer, autism, allergies or gluten intolerance, as one University of Tennessee survey implies.

That study recommends “targeted and simplified messaging … to reduce the information load.” Amen to that. Use infographics that point out that GMO use is in line with consumer values because it reduces the use of pesticides.

And keep reminding consumers that only 11 commercially available GMO crops exist in the U.S., approved by the Food and Drug Administration:

  • corn

  • soybean

  • cotton

  • sugar beet

  • canola

  • alfalfa

  • potato

  • summer squash

  • papaya

  • apple

  • pink pineapple

Infographic showing GMO crops grown in the United States

Disconnect from agriculture

Beyond GMOs, Americans are also confused about milk. Look, some of these conversations could end up sounding ridiculous, until you realize just how ignorant our customer is. You may have to point out that chocolate milk does not come from brown cows. Yeah, a 2017 survey by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy found that 7% of American adults think chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

That’s 16.4 million people. Insert forehead slap here.

Arm yourself with good news. I often think back to Maple Park, Ill., farmer Mike Martz telling a group of Chicago women about the healthy and unhealthy fats in steak.

“The fat in the marbling is actually monounsaturated fat. That’s the healthy fat, like olive oil. We call those flecks of flavor!” Martz said. The unhealthy fat? That’s the thick white stuff on the outside that you usually cut off.

See, when someone like Martz talks to consumers, they really do listen — especially when both parties connect on things they both value.

So, arm yourself with facts, but take the time to listen and connect. Statistics don’t change people’s minds. People change people’s minds. Be the change you need for this industry.

And remember my friend Katherine. Because with good news like this, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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