HOLIDAY gatherings are a perfect time to share your personal food production story. No need to tuck your list of talking points into your pocket before you leave the house or propose a toast to agriculture.
Strategic socializing has always been the norm in the urban professional crowd; farmers and ranchers can also use this strategy to talk about their work. Strategic means having a mini-marketing plan in the back of your head based on your experience and passion for agriculture. Socializing is about taking a few hours away from the daily grind.
At a recent holiday party, I found myself in the midst of a discussion about chips. This nonscientific discussion among friends was filled with reminiscing about the good old days when you could pop into a convenience store and pick up a sack of chips and a drink and be on your way in minutes — when you could eat them and not feel guilty.
Enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, we all joined in the chip choice confessions. We tried to justify our choices by saying we did not have time to read all the signs, so we grabbed what we liked and headed out the door.
Then, one friend mentioned that he had started to choose meat and poultry snacks instead of chips. Automatically, my own mini-marketing plan kicked in as I mentally began to Google meat snack choices. This conversation now had the potential to get complicated. I had a couple of choices: walk away, listen or be proactive by guiding the discussion.
Instead of rattling off a bunch of over-the-top comments about eating meat, I just asked questions about his snacking preferences. Everyone joined in as we talked about our good and bad experiences with meat snacks. Of course, they all politely mentioned pork snacks, even though we were all thinking beef is king when it comes to jerky. I strategically made sure we stayed politically aligned by mentioning turkey jerky.
One jerky connoisseur commented that choosing snacks is supposed to be fun. Sadly, he told us he was charged with doing the family holiday food shopping and dreaded wading through all the other customers and the endless rows of signs and advertising; it was no longer fun to find the best bargains and some of the traditional fun food items.
"When I see Santa tonight, I'm going ask him to do our holiday food shopping as our gift," he said.
On the way home, it was hard not to smile thinking about this request. I'm guessing that if this works out, there will be millions who try to make Santa their personal food shopper. Like everyone at the party, I just want to return to the good old days when the biggest decision for snacks was whether to get plain or ridges. Buying groceries is no longer a simple task. It needs to be strategic, and it is complicated.
Making a quick stop the next day to pick up ham pieces for my Senate bean soup, it took what seemed like forever to read the endless signs at the meat case. Organic, non-organic, free range, stall free, grass fed, vegetarian fed, hormone free and all natural each had their own little brown sign written in the same font with black ink.
The signs were all the same color, boring and hard to read; the only variety was the ones with red lines under the words "antibiotic free." Evidentially, the meat case manager wanted to use the Food & Drug Administration's "Guidance 213" (regarding antimicrobial products for food-producing animals) as a marketing tool. What was missing was the sign defining all of the different production attributes.
After looking around, I realized that this store used the same little brown signs on everything from chops to cookies, and the subliminal message is that all of the items on the shelves are better for you and the environment.
Noticing a bag or two of chips that I had also seen at the local convenience store, I wondered how many people perceived that if they purchased this product at this store, it was going to be healthier. The little brown sign really did not say.
Farmers don't need subliminal messaging and boring little brown signs. If they had to use signs, they would never be boring but would be as colorful as the diversity of their own farming and ranching stories.
Putting the ham hocks on to boil, my thoughts drifted back to the party and my shopping trip. What we need is a simple cheat sheet with information producers can use when strategically socializing — one that would also take some of the confusion out of food shopping.
The two challenges would be keeping it simple and getting this guide into the hands of every consumer without showing preference or bias to any food items. I'm confident that marketing experts could fine-tune the piece; it's the distribution that would be challenging.
It would take a very efficient distribution plan, much like Santa uses when he makes his annual rounds. Better yet, maybe he would help us and drop them off when making his stops around the country.
All that would be left is to fill in the blanks for those who missed making his list. No doubt, there's a good chance they were left off because the frustrations of holiday shopping ruined their record of good behavior. Let's face it: It's complicated!
*Joy Philippi is a fourth-generation Nebraska farmer and pork producer and partners with her parents in Philippi Farms. She has been active in agricultural advocacy for many years and is a former president of the National Pork Producers Council and Nebraska Pork Producers Assn. and a past board member of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.