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Opening your farm and connecting with fellow consumers

Andrea Bloom Published on 10 June 2013

It’s June Dairy Month – a time when our industry does an especially great job of promoting wholesome dairy foods and showcasing dairy farms. Here in Wisconsin, you can attend a “breakfast on the farm” event every weekend without having to travel more than 30 miles.

Bellies full of pancakes and plenty of farm-themed activities are sure to please hundreds of families in your community.

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The value of hosting farm visitors is easily seen as you build trust with your end-customers. Opening your farm to visitors demonstrates transparency. It shows you are not trying to hide any of your production practices. You are proud of your farm and the dairy foods you produce.

Recognizing shared values
Research from the Center for Food Integrity found that shared values between farmers and consumers are “three to five times more important than demonstrating competence.”

Simply put, showing that you care goes much further than explaining the minutiae of your farm’s technology and management strategies.

It’s interesting to note that we tend to place agricultural and non-agricultural audiences on opposite ends of the spectrum. “The people over there are the consumers, and the farmers are over here.” But that model doesn’t really make sense. Aren’t farmers also consumers?

Think about your last trip to the grocery store. What influenced your purchasing decisions? At the very least, you expected your produce, meat and dairy products to be fresh.

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You trusted that the foods were safe and wholesome for your family’s dinner table, and you would be very upset to find out that’s not the case. In addition, you probably expected that your grocery store purchases would not blow your family’s budget for the month.

Now step into the grocery store with the mindset of a suburban mother or father. Would the priorities really be that different? Just like you, this group demands safe and nutritious foods.

Thus, establishing shared values with fellow consumers doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s not “all of those consumers,” but rather “all of us as consumers.”

Opening your farm to visitors
With that frame of mind, let’s go back to the idea of opening your farm to visitors. Perhaps you’ve been asked to host a breakfast on the farm event for your local community.

A local elementary school teacher might have asked if the students can visit to learn more about farming. Or maybe another parent at the weekend soccer tournament simply expressed interest in learning more about your farm.

Regardless of your audience size or demographics, take a look at your farm in the same way you look at the grocery store. Consider the expectations you have there and apply them to your facilities.

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Does every area of your farm look safe and clean? Are supplies neatly stored away? Is equipment washed? Are disinfectants, medications or other chemicals clearly labeled and placed in a safe area?

Based only on what you see, would you be assured that your milk is safe and nutritious, or do you need to take on a couple of quick cleaning projects?

Think of it like this: We’ve all been to restaurants that are quite nice and those that are complete dives. In which environment do you feel more comfortable? Whose food safety and quality do you trust more? The same rules apply to your farm.

This exercise extends to your animals as well. You place top priority on maximizing the comfort and well-being of your herd – that goes without saying. But that fact needs to be evident to the naked eye.

Consider that most of our population’s interactions with animals are with pets. Americans are willing to go to fantastic lengths to treat their beloved pets as members of the family.

How might that change their expectations for the care of dairy cows and calves? Imagine the assurance they would feel as they walked into a barn where cattle are quiet, lying down in their stalls or eating at the feedbunk, appearing genuinely content.

Here too, consumers expect the environment to be safe and comfortable at all times. Take some time to make sure all fencing and gates are mended, pens are kept clean, trash is thrown away, and potentially hazardous areas are blocked off or clearly labeled. Obviously, this is a good practice even when you’re not hosting a farm tour.

Another good exercise is to spend a few hours snapping photos all over your farm. As we engage in the day-to-day business, it can be easy to overlook an area that needs a little attention.

Capturing it in a photo might bring to light your priorities for getting the farm ready for tours. You might also invite outside friends and family members to look at the photos and see if they notice anything out of the ordinary.

Bring the farm to them
Although we would all like to open our farms to consumers every day of the week, we know that’s not practical for a majority of farms. After all, you still have work to do.

A couple of tours a year might be all your schedule allows. At the same time, as school budgets are squeezed, many districts are eliminating funding for field trips and looking for alternative ways to expose students to agriculture.

At Vita Plus, we’ve certainly seen this trend in the last couple of years. Frequently, our staff and customers are asked to speak to school and community groups about modern dairy farming.

For that reason, we created free resource kits with video documentaries from four diverse dairy farms and supporting educational materials for upper elementary, secondary and adult audiences. The idea is to provide a simple starting point and easy-to-use materials as you talk about your farm and dairy production.

In addition, don’t underestimate the power of social media in our digital world. Some farms have embraced Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other channels to provide a more accurate picture of farm life.

Even if you’re not ready to create your own fan page for your farm, you can capitalize on this technology by simply posting a farm photo or update on your personal profile every once in a while.

Do you think your friends and connections are uninterested in your farm? Think again. Only 2 percent of the American population is composed of farm and ranch families. Even your closest friends and family are hungry to learn more about your farm and food production.

It’s not complicated
The idea of hosting farm tours or giving presentations can sometimes be daunting. Where do you start? How do you develop public speaking skills? What if it doesn’t go perfectly? Can a simple mistake do more harm than good?

Get those doubts out of your head. Remember that the goal is to build trust with fellow consumers. This isn’t done through fancy presentations, glossy photos or over-the-top tours.

Trust is built through genuine two-way conversations, thoughtful questions and answers, recognition of challenges, personal insight into solutions and, most importantly, an emphasis on shared values with your fellow consumers. PD

The resource kits mentioned in this article are available for any U.S. dairy farmers or industry partners to use as they speak about modern dairy farming with consumers. Email Andrea Bloom to request one.

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Andrea Bloom
Marketing and Communications Specialist
Vita Plus Corp

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