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Conflicting consumer expectations make it tough to be a farmer

Jevtic/iStock/Getty Images farmer on laptop in field during harvest_FDS_Jevtic_iStock_Getty Images-512008841.jpg
Survey shows consumers want farmers to be sustainable above everything else.

Add conflicting consumer expectations to the list of reasons farming is a tough row to hoe right now. In its new global study, Cargill found that consumers had a hard-to-satisfy wish list for those who produce the nation's food, with most claiming to feel knowledgeable about how food is raised.

Farmers should care most about “providing safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food,” a majority of survey takers said. Yet, those same respondents would prefer that their food come from smaller/specialty, local or organic farms, which can’t necessarily compete on cost.

“Farmers are foundational to feeding the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way, but they do so under pressure,” said Pilar Cruz, president of Cargill’s feed and nutrition business. “On one hand, affordable food is central to many families’ budgets. On the other, people are questioning the farming approaches that have made food more available and affordable.”

According to Cruz, Cargill sees all viewpoints, because it partners with farmers, food companies and beyond. As such, the company works to raise awareness and foster understanding across the value chain.

“Chairing the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s Heartland Tour, a partnership aimed at showcasing and advancing ways for local farming to contribute to global progress, is one example,” she noted.

In its latest "Feed4Thought" survey, Cargill found that half of the people surveyed in the U.S., China, Mexico and Spain saw a farmer primarily as a “person who feeds the world.” Just a quarter chose “steward of the Earth’s natural resources” — perhaps a reflection that one-third of contributors doubted the long-term sustainability of today’s agriculture. They want farmers to be sustainable, though: “Sustainable” was the word that best described what participants wanted a farmer to be; “efficient” was second.

“Farmers are trying to feed the world and protect the Earth’s resources and provide for their families,” said Heather Tansey, sustainability lead for Cargill’s protein and animal nutrition businesses. “These are not mutually exclusive. Farmers around the world are adopting conservation practices to nourish people, the planet and the health of their businesses. Initiatives like BeefUp Sustainability, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in partnership with farmers, ranchers and other innovators; farmer prosperity training, which nurtures sustainable practices and incomes for smallholder farmers, and Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator, a partnership to solve big nutrition challenges with technology, can help.”

Three-quarters of "Feed4Thought" respondents said they think technologically advanced farming is a good thing, but that’s not exactly how they view farmers. “Technologically savvy” was one of the terms least associated with farmers.

Contrast this with the approach of Cargill's long-term customer Coldstream Farms in Washington, a dairy operation where innovation helps with everything from reducing feed loss to minimizing lameness to turning manure into drinkable water for cows and chemical-free fertilizer.

“I think the common image of ‘farmer’ remains pitchfork in hand, standing in a field,” said Galen Smith, who co-owns Coldstream Farms. “Today’s farmer is far from that. I spend a lot of time researching new technologies, understanding herd trends and finding ways to steer us on a more sustainable course. We’re passionate about nurturing animals and are continually trying to do a better job of educating people on what happens on a dairy farm.”

Gabriel Carballal, a member of the Global Farmer Network from Uruguay who works closely with Cargill, said farmers need to tell their stories. Further, he said sound science and reliable data are needed and noted, “The only impediment to a desirable outcome for all is accurate information about how farming and food production really work.”

Survey findings suggest a need to engage consumers on animal farming in particular. Although respondents had a 95% positive view of farmers, animal protein producers were viewed less favorably than crop farmers.

“It’s tough to be a farmer,” acknowledged David Webster, who grew up on a farm and leads Cargill’s animal nutrition business. “That’s why Cargill anticipates and responds to farmers’ needs in this dynamic marketplace, making them more productive, efficient and sustainable. It could be artificial intelligence that helps farmers know everything about their animals in an instant, or sustainable alternatives to fish meal in feed like InnovaFeed’s insect protein or increasing production of organic feed by 45% in one year — as we have at our Brittany, France, plant.”

He added, “We’re helping make farming part of the solution to the pressing need to do more with less across the food and agriculture industry.”

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