LISTEN FIRST TO ADDRESS CONSUMERS' FOOD PRODUCTION QUESTIONS AND NEEDS

Samantha Scantlebury

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I love food. I love trying new kinds, I love trying new restaurants, and I love a good home-cooked meal.  (However, I suck at cooking. Thankfully my husband is much more adept.) I am in the fortunate position in that I can go to the grocery store and feel confident that essentially anything I need for the next great meal is fully stocked. I am lucky enough to not know what true food scarcity feels like. 

But there are millions in the world who live this reality every day. And that number will grow as the earth's population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.  Agriculture has to operate more efficiently and more productively than ever before - which is exciting and incredibly daunting. 

I am concerned that despite this enormous challenge, there is a very vocal portion of the population that opposes modern ag technologies (GMO's being the most notable) that exist to enhance. I get worried when the Chipotles of the world paint a haunting picture of what "corporate farms" are really like, which build barriers in a time when we need food production to be swift and streamlined.

Farmers today are in an interesting position. Their customer is not only a processor or wholesaler. Demand is being driven from the consumer (i.e., notably affluent Millennials and Gen-Xers with families). And that modern American consumer is asking for natural. They want free-range. They want transparency. They want options. Yet, in agriculture everything is focused on bigger yields. And we need big yields to continue to meet the bigger food demands of the world.  So what's a farmer to do?

I believe solution rests in the simple act of listening. The reality is that it takes time to listen and to fully understand and process what it is you've heard before responding. But it is important. Listening may lead you down a couple of paths in addressing the challenge outlined above. I offer some thoughts below:

  • Todd Martin, CEO of the Independent Professional Seed Association, wrote a great op-ed that was posted in the January issue of Seed World. He described a conversation he had with a former college professor of his, in which Todd argued the merits of biotechnology. But his professor said that even though the science is there to back it, you have to 'sell people what they want.'  With this in mind, Todd's op-ed asked its readers to think about the current adversity agriculture is facing with biotechnology as an opportunity instead.  Today, there are certain specialty and food-grade commodity options that are un-tapped and unfulfilled to some extent as we focus year-over-year on commercial corn and soy. Premiums are being offered on crops grown conventionally or organically compared with biotech options. At a time when grain market prices are lower, it makes sense to consider. At IntelliFarms’ Tech Summit this spring, one breakout session focused on the potential of specialty markets for this very reason. Perhaps, there is profitable opportunity in listening to what the market is saying - what it's craving - and delivering on that. 
  • In addition to listening to today's consumers to identify opportunities, we must also listen to their complaints. It can be easy to write them off - "They don't farm, they don't get it." That may be true, but they want to get it. They want American farmers to be able to keep growing and feeding the world. But they want to have confidence in their food. Marketing agency, Sullivan Higdon & Sink, publishes an annual study called FoodThink. 2016 FoodThink data states that 65% of Americans want more knowledge about food production, yet only one-third trust that the food industry is transparent with its practices. We have to close this gap. The first step to mutual understanding and agreement is listening to consumers. What are their real concerns? What do they want to understand? Instead of barraging a person with facts and statistics about antibiotics or biotechnology, for example, he/she may want to see a farm in person and understand that behind the scenes, it's real people - good people - producing their food. There are several organizations that are doing a great job of bridging that gap between farmers and consumers, including the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance with The Food Dialogues efforts and the Iowa Soybean Association's Iowa Food & Family Project.  And truth is - we can probably learn a thing or two from consumers. New perspectives can shift paradigms, and maybe there will be new ways we discover to approach farm practices that address consumer concerns and are also equally efficient. My hope is that by opening up the dialogue, over time, we will start to break down the barriers that are causing inefficiences in food production.

As a farm technology company that largely specializes in grain bin storage management, IntelliFarms doesn’t get (nor want) to decide what a farm chooses to grow each year. But we do want farmers, who are our partners and customers, to stay viable. Through our technology solutions, we want to be part of the solution to feeding our growing world. I want to continue to go into the grocery store and buy the food I love, with confidence it will be there, and I want others to have that same confidence. I believe that taking the time to listen, understand what needs are and how our actions affect them, and from there, strategically charting a course, is the answer.