As the industry focused on a production saturated strategy (forgetting about the non-ag consumer sifting through their end products at the grocery store), millennial consumers’ embraced food sourcing alternatives. The small scale farmer movement exploded, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's stole precious market share from established grocers, and Farmers’ Markets emerged as community hubs.
Consumer demands have shifted. Today’s consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. They want relationships with the brand they patronize, and they demonstrate a strong distrust of corporate ambiguity. They want to be confident that chemicals and genetically modified seeds don’t negatively impact our health. Today’s consumers want answers, and they are finding them—everywhere but from the industry that feeds them.
Our commercial food chain system contributes to the farmer-consumer disconnect. Farmers don’t interact with the non-ag consumers that eat their food. Seed companies didn’t sell (directly) to the suburbanite that enjoyed the result of their highly innovative variety. Agriculture production resembles a fumbled handoff, with no one paying attention to the end of the chain—the card swiping consumer.
Ever Growing Generational Divide
The generational divide between farmers and the consumers has never been this large. No generation in the history of America has been so far removed from the farm, than that of today’s Millennials and Gen Z consumers. With the average age of America’s farmers pushing 58, and Millennials (ages 18-35), the gap between farm and table is equivocal to the spread of Grand Canyon.
The majority of today’s consumers don’t understand food animal life cycles, husbandry techniques, or production demands (GMO’s anyone?). The impact of consumer-farm disconnect can be seen in the wide spread emergence of alternative food sourcing – organic operations, CSA’s, farmer’s markets, hydroponics, farm-to-table restaurants. While a wet behind the ears ag student, I was told this “hippy craze” was simply a fad, and that it would in no way impact “Big Ag”.
Fast forward to 2015, and I’m still hearing the fastest growing sector of agriculture referred to by industry leaders as just a “blip on the radar.” Um…numbers say that “blip” is taking quite the bite out of commercial ag agenda-- U.S. organic farm revenues increased 72% from 2008-2014 (USDA).
It appears as though consumers have spoken—with their dollars.
"Us vs. Them" Never Wins
Commodity groups and commercial producers have adopted an “Us vs. Them” mentality when addressing many of the “hot topic” concerns of today’s consumers. Farmers feel attacked by consumer’s questions, and consumers feel threatened by the existing knowledge gap. Today’s consumer don’t understand how gestation crates actually PROTECTS lives of piglets, why dairy calves are bottle reared, and why GMO’s are (presently) our only economically-feasible solution to meeting the food demands of an ever growing worldwide population.
These consumer concerns are not “threats”; instead, they are an opportunity to educate and engage non-ag populations in a proactive manner. It doesn’t take a PR genius to tell you jumping on the defense isn’t an effective way to win friends (or customers!). Ditch the “us vs. them” mentality and prioritize open and engaging conversations with non-ag consumers.
Corporate Responsibility Rocks
Many industry professionals incorrectly assumed society’s dependence upon their entities as a food source exempted them from prioritizing effective public relations reflective of evolving consumer needs. Today’s consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it gets here, and who grows it. They want to be sure that all brand they patronize leave the world a BETTER place than they found it.
I recently saw a social media post from beef commodity group celebrating that commercial cattle product was only responsible for 2.8% of the world’s carbon emissions. While you and I may recognize this number as lower than in year’s previous (yay!), non-agriculture millennial consumers see that “only 2.8% carbon emission” as a big, BIG, unnecessary negative.
Millennial consumers have demonstrated their devotion to patronizing brands representative of their devotion to environment and social responsibility. Don’t believe me?
Today’s millennial consumers demand corporate responsibility, and they are willing to pay for it.
So What’s a Black-listed Brand to Do?
If “Big Ag” wants to continue feeding America in the decades to come, they are going to have the pull their head out of the sand, accept old school ways are obsolete, and embrace effective community building strategies characterized by the Connected Age. Consumers need agriculture, and agriculture needs consumers; but if agriculture refuses to acknowledge their mutual reliance on consumers’ patronage to ensure commercial industry longevity, they may find their brand going by way of the dinosaur.
Drop the “us vs. them” lose-lose strategy. Acknowledge the ever growing divide from field to table, and focus your strategies on ways to connect and engage with non-ag consumers. Social media, blogs and vlogs, and corporate give back initiatives provide organizations a great resource in which to connect to millennial consumers. Prioritize and educational and engaging digital presence, and don’t forget to TALK to consumers.
About Hannah Becker:
Hannah Becker is a millennial author, entrepreneur, and marketing consultant. She currently helps brands increase millennial market share through digital strategy and public relations. Follow Hannah on Twitter@MotivatedGenY