Amid a devastating pandemic, there is a bright spot for U.S. farmers and food producers. Recent news reports highlight one positive outcome of the coronavirus – new favorability and respect for farmers and food producers.
According to a survey released by Gallup in September, agriculture and farming is the sector of the economy with the most favorable image among Americans. Nearly seven out of 10 respondents said they have a positive view of farming and agriculture – and this is the first time in two decades, when Gallup first began measuring opinion of different economic sectors, that agriculture was the clear leader. The research found 19% of consumers had a neutral opinion of agriculture, while just 11% had a negative opinion. Others in the food space also were high – with the grocery industry at 63% and restaurants at 61%.
According to Gallup, “…the public is expressing greater appreciation for the work of three industries that are crucial to people's wellbeing: farming and agriculture, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals.” For the farm community, this signals an opportunity to ride the wave of positive image for further dialogue between U.S. farmers and those they serve.
How can the farm community strategically leverage this momentum for better consumer engagement? First and foremost, by dusting off their storytelling methods, beginning with digital marketing.
Studies report that consumers are using social media and digital platforms 50% more than they were before the pandemic. This is a place where farmers can excel, by sharing photos and videos, telling stories about life in farming and food production, and answering questions that consumers have about how our food is produced. Live and virtual tours of the farm and online Q+A sessions bring our stakeholders “onto the farm” and open our doors in a safe and secure way.
That said, there are some important guardrails to stay within when engaging with consumers – whether in-person or online. And to maximize this positive farmer image, the farm community must stay the course on these essential aspects of communicating:
Leaning into values – Here is where farmers shine. They produce the same great food for others that they feed our own families. In many cases, they live on or near their farms, and taking care of the land, air and water matters. Those who are hungry benefit from nutritious, high-quality foods. Farmers are people with character and integrity – and most all today’s farm community does is rooted in the strong values and high standards established generations ago.
Transparency – Farmers must expect to speak candidly about tough issues, like GMOs, animal welfare or sustainability. Having the difficult conversations and honestly answering the challenging questions is the path to consumer trust. If talking about what happens on a farm does not create a bit of discomfort, it may not be transparent enough. Sharing the unique ways a farm operates – from barn to processing – is important. Transparency is tough, but when done well, it works.
Authenticity – Farmers must be their “true selves” when engaging and to fully represent how today’s modern farms look. Being genuine creates goodwill, which leads to a more productive and meaningful conversation. While red barns and cows on pasture may be the pastoral image in some consumers’ minds, it is necessary to present an accurate picture of what takes place on modern farms, which likely look a little different than the farms of a century ago.
Listening – It is easy to get frustrated when talking to people who may be three or four generations “off the farm.” They do not understand, and many times, they make judgments based on a lack of information or misinformation. The capacity to not just hear – but to listen with the intent of making stronger connections – is critical. Instead of taking the defensive posture, start with an open mind and commit to the journey of teaching about farming and food production today.
Doing the right thing – Within all the guidance about how to better connect with the consuming public, the best thing farmers can do to make a meaningful difference in farmer image is to do the right thing on the farm. That means having a robust animal welfare program, responsibly managing manure and being aware of their farm’s environmental impact, caring for employees, producing safe food and contributing to the community. Crisis is not a competitive issue – a crisis in the farm community creates doubt and concern about all farms.
Whether in a pandemic or in the everyday of food production, this new data about consumers is instructive. Ultimately, farmer image starts at home – and on the farm. Riding the waves of these positive perceptions will assure continued trust in farms and the foods that are produced.
The Gallup data suggests there is an open door – and an interest in engaging. When favorability is already on the side of the farm community, leveraging the momentum and positive perceptions through effective engagement can give people even more reasons to have confidence in the U.S. food system.
Hinda Mitchell is president of Inspire PR Group, a national communications firm with a large practice in food production and agriculture PR and marketing strategies and implementation. Reach Hinda at Hinda@InspirePRGroup.com.