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Rethinking consumer outreach would benefit farmers
The Ohio Livestock Coalition’s annual meeting and industry symposium in April 2011 examined legal, regulatory and public relations issues facing farmers. Below is a highlight from that conversation.
When it comes to building trust, here are three concepts to consider from the Center for Food Integrity’s Charlie Arnot:
1. “You don’t have an image issue. You have a trust issue.”
A theme that has been drawn from the Center for Food Integrity’s work is that consumers trust farmers, but they’re not sure that today’s agriculture is farming.
Charlie Arnot, the center’s executive director, said farmers have had the conversation backward when attempting to address consumer concerns about who they are and what they do.
When consumers ask if animals should be confined, for example, farmers have replied “science says we can,” Arnot said.
“Can” and “should” are not the same question, he said.
Before explaining the science, Arnot said farmers should recognize where the consumer concern is coming from and provide assurance that farmers share similar values in regard to animal care, the environment and food production.He said that simply providing more knowledge to consumers is not adequate.
“We can’t educate our way into trust,” he said.
Likewise, talking about economics falls short, because consumers “are really not interested in whether you’re efficient or productive.”
Communicating shared values is three to five times more effective at building trust than demonstrating competence at what you do, he said.
2. “Show me how it’s done. I want to see it.”
A new study shows that consumers are much more likely to trust a video tour of a farm than the opinion of a farmer.
If farmers can show consumers what they do “and have reasonable transparency about it, it will have greater credibility,” Arnot said.
Part of that transparency is conceding that all farm systems have advantages and disadvantages.
“(Consumers) want some acknowledgement of the pros and cons so they can weigh the information,” he said.
Farmers can compete online
The fact that more consumers are turning to the Internet to learn about food production can be a good thing, Arnot said, because “we can compete online.”
Arnot said consumers want information from those they don’t believe have a conflict of interest. And when farmers discuss the benefits of how they produce food, “we have to focus on the benefits to others, not the benefits to (us).”
3. “It’s not an act of altruism. It’s smart business.”
Arnot said that nobody got into farming because they wanted to be involved in public policy or public relations. However, gaining the trust of the public is in a farmer’s self-interest, he said.
“They won’t feel the need to step in and provide oversight over who you are and what you do,” he said.
Arnot said the U.S. food system has been positioned as having food that is “controversial” and food that is “controversy-free.”
To help counter that narrative, farmers should “engage consumers and support choice,” he said.
In the end, Arnot believes consumer trust will lead to a much more favorable business climate than expanded regulations.