On-farm events improve consumer perception

Educational farm tours provide the public an opportunity to learn firsthand, ask questions of farmers and other professionals and give feedback.

Educational farm tours, such as Breakfast on the Farm, provide the public an opportunity to learn firsthand, ask questions of farmers and other professionals and give feedback about modern food production, said J.M. Smith of the University of Vermont during the extension section of the 2016 JAM.

Vermont held its first Breakfast on the Farm event on a dairy farm in August 2015. Patterned after the Breakfast on the Farm events in Michigan, the event was designed to educate consumers on key areas of concern, including animal care, environmental protection and food safety.

During the event, educational stations were placed along a walking tour of the farm facilities allowing visitors to see cow and calf housing, milking facilities and how feed is produced and fed. An exit survey instrument consisting of pre-post questions evaluated what participants learned and their change in perceptions of several agricultural practices.

Of 550 visitors, 227 who were at least 18 years old completed the questionnaire. Almost half of respondents had visited a working dairy farm fewer than 3 times before the event.

On a 5-point scale from very little to very much, respondents indicated how much was learned about how cows are housed (4.08), what cows eat (3.91), how cows receive health care (3.38), how antibiotics are kept out of the food supply (2.87), how technology is used in dairy production (4.33), how farmers protect water quality (3.34), how calves are cared for (3.76) and how crops are grown and stored (3.60).

The survey showed that first-time visitors gained the greatest knowledge about how technology is being used and how cows are being housed. On a 5-point scale where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, first-time visitors had an average score increase of 0.56 between their before and after tour ratings of their agreement with statements that dairy farmers are treating animals humanely, protecting water quality, using pesticides responsibly and using antibiotics responsibly. The greatest change in beliefs was about dairy farmers treating animals humanely with a mean increase of 0.74 and 0.51, respectively, among first-time visitors and all respondents. The percentage of first-time visitors agreeing or strongly agreeing that farmers treat animals humanely increased from 61% to 91% after touring the farm.

Before and after differences were significant for all questions, Smith said, indicating that events such as breakfast on the farm do indeed improve consumer knowledge and impressions about modern dairy farms and management practices.

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