How this popular slogan applies to agriculture... kind of.
If you have ever worked in retail, food service, or really anywhere that has to do with selling or supplying something, odds are your boss has told you at one time, “The customer is always right.” (I truly hope that if you are in the medical field, however, that this does not apply.) This slogan makes customer satisfaction of utmost importance, and satisfied customers = returning customers.
This got me thinking… in the agriculture industry, does this slogan still apply?
Whether selling food at the local farmers market or a contractor to a larger food supplier or distributor, at the end of the day farmers and ranchers have the same customer: the everyday consumer.
Consumers are on one side growing more disconnected from agriculture (the average American being 3 generations removed from a farm) and on the other side consumers are becoming increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. In many ways, this is exciting! In other ways, it is difficult.
Recently the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) conducted a study on three consumer groups: moms, millennials, and foodies. As CFI project manager Allyson Perry said, “When we did the research, we thought agriculture had an image issue, but then we discovered that, no, agriculture has a trust issue.” **
Consumers deserve more credit than I think some farmers and ranchers tend to give them. For one, they are what drive the entire food industry after all. If consumers decided one day that they didn’t like oranges any more, guess what? Orange farmers would probably start planting something else. Consumers overall aren’t dumb or ill-willed. Their worries don’t have the baseline intention of discrediting agriculturalists, but come from a place of deep concern and honest desire to give themselves and their families the safest and most nutritious food.
So are the customers, or in this case, consumers, always right?
Yes, and no.
Farmers and ranchers have been pretty good at listening to their customers. For example, why do you think there are now 39 cuts of lean beef? Is it because a group of cattle decided to join the Crossfit bandwagon? As entertaining as the image is, it’s actually because the beef industry has catered to the increasing consumer desire for lean protein.
When I hear consumers claim that eating red meat is causing infertility or that agricultural chemical companies are trying to poison the world, I’m not so gung-ho on the idea that the “customers are always right.”
Many agriculturalists are frustrated. Their customer base is more reliant on their accountant neighbor, Mary Kay selling cousin, fellow mommy blogger, or Zumba classmate for advice on issues related to food than they are on the farmers themselves. Statistics, science, and decades of research are up against popularized, misleading infographic Facebook posts and tweets shared rapidly by the thousands.
But let’s face it, the majority of people connect to other people better than they do numbers, stories are more intriguing than a research analysis, and recommendations from a friend carry more weight than a company’s.
So where do we go from here?
Consumer fears and worries should be validated. I’m not saying they should be reinforced or perpetuated if they stem from misunderstanding, but they deserve to be addressed at the very least. Telling consumers that they are simply wrong dismisses their concerns and further wedges the gap between consumers and producers.
Perry also mentioned that agriculture has been focused on “educating” consumers rather than connecting with them. **
Consumers want to hear the story of the third generation farm family dedicated to growing fresh produce or the professional football player whose passion is raising chickens. They are intrigued by the engineer that reinvented the way farmers irrigate their crops or the woman who revolutionized animal handling practices for the entire agriculture industry. They want to see the photos of farm kids learning how to milk their cows or read a blog about what happens in the day of the life of a pig farmer.
Sure, it’s incredible to see the improvements that agriculture has made over the years in terms of increased efficiency and environmental stewardship, BUT the most incredible thing about agriculture are the people within it.
Agriculture needs to meet consumers where they are, online, and put the people back into food.