Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley recently spoke with Chris Galen (far right), communications director for NMPF, and Keith Yazmir, (right) a communications consultant, about the emergence of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and some of its early work to influence the perceptions of U.S. agriculture with consumers.Q: What is the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance?
A: GALEN: It is a coalition of most of the major commodity farm and ranch organizations, and a lot of state organizations as well, working together to strengthen the image of agriculture and to enhance trust in agriculture production. National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) has been involved in a lot of the early discussions, and we are on its board of directors.
Q: Would you say this is the most comprehensive ‘agvocacy’ group you’ve seen?
A: GALEN: Absolutely. This is, by far, the largest such coalition. We’ve never done anything on this scale before.
Q: How did the dairy industry initially get involved?
A: GALEN: We’d been in discussions with a smaller group of organizations going back about two years. We felt that we needed to have a seat at the table because if you look across the list of affiliated organizations, you see it’s basically the Who’s Who in production agriculture.
Q: We haven’t always gotten along with some groups on the list – say cattlemen – right?
A: GALEN: Of course, the answer is ‘no.’ In some respects we still don’t, but on a lot of issues about how farming and ranching today are perceived, we are absolutely in lockstep. If you look at the issues we’re both dealing with, they are related to production practices – the size and scale of farms, animal care, all those sorts of things.
When we do consumer research or if you just show up in the grocery aisle, what are people concerned about? Where their food comes from.
That’s not just a dairy issue or a pork issue or a fruit-and-vegetable issue. These are ecumenical, across-the-board issues, and that’s why we need a group that has the breadth to work on them together.
Q: What do you hope the dairy industry’s involvement will accomplish?
A: GALEN: I hope we show we’re able to work together, not only to play well in the sandbox with other farm and ranch groups, but to have a better and more profound conversation with consumers and other people who influence the way consumers think and feel.
We’ve got to have a better conversation about food, and so we need to be part of this group because, obviously, dairy is a very common food.
Q: What are some of the recent activities that have made an impact?
A: GALEN: One of the first things the alliance did was consumer research with Keith Yazmir to find out how food influencers think collectively, regarding concerns or questions about production agriculture today.
Then, earlier this fall, we had a series of online conversations, called Food Dialogues, which were live and online.
We invited people in from a variety of different perspectives, not just a cheering squad of people who are involved in food production, to do a series of simulcast meetings broadcast from Washington; New York; Fair Oaks, Indiana, at the Fair Oaks Dairy Education Center; and Davis, California, at the University of California campus there.
Q: What are the key findings of your consumer research for the alliance?
A: YAZMIR: I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that there is a bit of a disconnect right now between consumers and producers. Specifically, some voices out there are asking some pretty hard questions of agriculture.
This feels personal to the agriculture industry, like we’re being beat up and attacked. Some people are questioning our motives. But on the other hand, consumers have concerns over where their food is coming from.
The big picture of what we heard was that to move forward as responsible farmers and ranchers, we need to communicate about what we do and why we do it.
Q: The title of the report was interesting to me: “It’s not what you say; it’s what they hear.” Give me if you would a specific example of current ag or dairy messaging that isn’t resonating with consumers.
A: YAZMIR: For a long time, the industry has been repeating the mantra of abundance and affordability when it comes to food, which of course includes the dairy sector. This is a great story; this is something we should be celebrating.
However, we won that battle some time ago. Those were the questions that were being asked coming out of World War II, when there were real serious questions on how this country and the world was going to feed itself.
If you talk to the vast majority of food influencers out there, as well as consumers, nobody is sitting around, wondering about abundance and affordability. That is not to say there aren’t people who have trouble paying their food bills or who go hungry in this country.
So while we’re saying abundant, affordable food, consumers’ concerns have more to do with the safety and the long-term impact of feeding the food we produce to their family.
I hear scary things out there from consumers everywhere about bacterial or foodborne illnesses. And even though we have a lot of oversight and a lot of data supporting the safety of our production methods, the data pales in comparison to when people have a real concern.
Their concerns are not rational; they are emotional. When it really comes down to what motivates people to act and to make food-buying decisions, “feeding the world” has very, very little to do with it.
Q: What are some of the messages ag needs to be saying so that consumers will hear what they want to hear?
A: YAZMIR: A disconnect that’s out there, and I caution folks not to talk a lot about disconnects because nobody likes that, is the communication approach. If I told you, “Listen, Walt, the thing you don’t understand is …” then already you’re defensive, which is not a good way to start out a conversation.
Communicating disconnects doesn’t help us: “Consumers just don’t live near farms these days.” “They don’t understand what goes on.” While those statements are true, talking about them doesn’t help us. In fact, they probably make people feel like we’re criticizing them.
What we need to do is to start talking about what people are actually concerned about and addressing those things in ways that show there is forward progress.
So, for example, as opposed to having a conversation about today, let’s have a conversation about where we were yesterday and where we’re going tomorrow. Let’s have a conversation about the history of farming, such as doing things more efficiently or using fewer inputs.
Q: What did your research find about how consumers perceive agriculture?
A: YAZMIR: The perception, especially on the coasts and the big media centers where a lot of this conversation about food is being held, is that we are big business.
We come with all of the baggage and the negatives that are stereotypical of big business, even though most of the producers out there are still family-owned or family-run.
But from a lot of the research we’ve seen, that impression is so strongly held that we are going to be wasting a lot of breath if we go out and say, “No, we’re not; no, we’re not; no, we’re not.”
What we need to do is acknowledge that’s the perception and then communicate on the perspective of that perception. This does not mean to go out and say we’re big business.
We certainly wouldn’t believe somebody from the oil and gas industry or somebody from the pharmaceutical industry making some claim about being good people (think family-run), so we should trust them to do the right thing. We would have a lot of skepticism about that.
Q: So what should we be saying?
A: YAZMIR: For example, on animal welfare, we should be saying, “I want to be nice to my animals and treat them well because when they’re stressed out, they produce less milk.
That’s bad for me as a businessperson. I want to be nice and do the right thing for my animals because those few bad actors out there that have been shown to be mistreating their animals – that hurts me. That hurts my industry. I take a stand against bad actors because I think it’s the wrong way to dairy.”
That’s the type of communication that really helps change the conversation, and it also inserts messages into it that people don’t know.
Q: Are consumers getting more skeptical?
A: YAZMIR: Consumer issues are emotional ones. We can’t assume that if we have a bunch of facts and a bunch of certifications from third parties, that that’s enough. It’s not. We’ve seen far too many front-page articles over the past 10 years about bad big business behavior.
For example, think of pharmaceuticals the FDA has approved. Then, five years later, they’re taken off the market because they harm people. There’s a tremendous amount of cynicism out there in the marketplace, and I would argue it is not unfounded and it’s not completely ignorant.
The economic crisis has not helped that level of cynicism at all. It’s not about our facts versus their facts; it’s about their family and their health.
Q: Chris, what do you think Keith’s research means for the dairy industry?
A: GALEN: If the messaging we use is couched in purely technical terms, that’s leading with our chin, and it is not an effective way to address consumer concerns. His research has shown that farm-facing messages are not particularly reassuring.
I disagree that you can make blanket generalizations and say that nobody is concerned about safe, affordable, abundant food, but for a lot of U.S. consumers who hear that, they’re not particularly moved or reassured by that message.
They’re more concerned about, “What impact does this food have on my kids?” or “Are you engaging in shortcuts to provide cheap food?” PD
Visit usfraonline.org for more information about the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s initiatives and activities.