A wise old Farm Bureau president once said, “If consumers want us to raise their food using monkeys to drive the tractors, that's what we'll do.”
Provided the monkeys have been cleared by PETA, of course.
I bring this to your attention not because I have taken up zookeeping but because it’s time to start thinking seriously about doing things differently. Doing things that can help you make money, even if you don’t fundamentally agree with those enterprises.
I just had another chance to observe rich, educated American consumers happily wandering through Whole Foods, purchasing pricy products most of which were labeled “non-GMO” and “organic.” Whether or not all these folks are paying strict attention to said labels is up for debate; some are, some are not. If the food looks good and they’re hungry, they’re buying. So let’s skip past the absurdities – you know, non-GMO salt. Non-GMO kitty litter. Yes, these products exist.
What I hope you think about instead, are current beliefs and mindsets of both the farmer and the consumer. For some farmers, maybe the mindset needs to change. I really doubt that the consumer’s will.
Start with farmers. I’ve interviewed some very smart farmers who are moving some of their commodity production to organic. Do they ‘believe’ that organic is somehow healthier, tastier, or more sustainably produced than conventional food? No, and the science supports that. While organic methods are improving, they still result in 10% to 15% lower yields. Considering the growing world population, no one in their right mind could see how producing less on a per acre basis makes sustainable sense; you’d have to be plowing up trees and parks to make up the difference. Yet, farmers are making the transition anyway. Those farmers are not chasing yield; they are chasing profit. Their mindsets are moving to a new business model.
Why? See monkey story at top of page.
Losing our minds
Now, back to those rich, educated consumers. The modern farming crowd, myself included, has lost its collective mind trying to convince them that biotech food is safe, that ‘conventional’ production means dumping more pesticides on plants and soil, that ‘conventional’ leads to more soil loss or pollution compared to GMO.
No matter. These folks are not ignorant; They have simply embraced a mindset, a belief that buying those labeled Whole Foods products make them a better, more earth-conscious consumer, that they are helping to save the planet.
Those labels give them a warm, fuzzy feeling as they return home from shopping. The labels represent David slaying Goliath; they believe a ‘non-GMO’ label means food that does not originate from the wretched hands of some faceless agribusiness giant, but rather from, well, farmers with bib overalls and straw hats, I guess.
An ‘organic’ label delivers similar imagery; that somehow organic production is healthier and will save the planet from the evils of conventional agriculture – even if by definition organic is less sustainable due to lower productivity.
There are other products with other traits and labels, but these are the big ones.
I see you out there, smoke coming out of your ears, trying to make sense of it. Don’t. This train left the station long ago. You cannot reverse this, nor should you keep trying. We can keep trotting out our snarky ‘GMO survivor’ t-shirts, but I’m convinced science is not going to win this war. Not in today’s climate where good scare marketing beats facts every time.
So let’s hit the reset button. Embrace your customer’s mindset -- even if sometimes it makes no sense to you.
Farmers willing to try organic no doubt face a learning curve, but there’s evidence the tuition is worth it. Last I looked, the biggest demand for U.S. row cropping is in domestically-grown organic grain. Last I looked, organic corn was going for $9 per bu. and no. 2 yellow corn was going for $3.80.
Even I can do that math.
There’s risk in change, but there’s also profit potential. And, an added bonus: a public relations benefit. You rarely see consumer groups pressure organic farms.
These traits are just the beginning. Companies will pay you to raise food with special attributes. It’s coming.
When you get on the side of your customer, you will always win, even when it seems, well, silly.
You may not believe in organic or non-GMO production, but you certainly do believe in profit margins.
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.