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Communication with Consumers: A Major Focus of Animal Agriculture        

Ted Ferris
Dept. of Animal Science

In the past two decades consumer advocates and special interest groups have raised concerns about food production technologies, environmental impacts of animal systems, and more recently animal welfare. Consumers receive messages about nutrient value, food safety and how products are produced with regard to the environment and animal management (social conscience). Marketing strategies used to differentiate food products have resulted in food labeling that can be misleading as many consumers may not understand or be presented with all the facts. These circumstances are impacting the image of agriculture and are exacerbated by today’s consumer being far removed from food production. In response, a number of organizations in the agriculture sector have been increasing their efforts to educate and attempt to reconnect the public with the food system using a variety of methods ranging from farm visits to social media.     

Table 1: Eleven survey items categorized under the public and consumer theme.

Dairy producer perspectives on public and consumer issues can be found in the results of the 2008 Dairy Industry Survey. Farm Owner/operators rated 46 items related to industry concerns, industry viability and industry priorities. For this article, I have categorized eleven of the 46 items that relate to what can be termed public and consumer issues. The averages of responses for these items, based upon a 5-point scale, where 1 is “Not Very Important” to 5 being “Very Important” are in Table 1. Their rank among the 46 items is included.

Two animal welfare topics in Table 1 would likely rate higher today following California’s Proposition 2 and changes to the Michigan Animal Industry Act affecting housing for poultry, gestating swine and veal calves in Michigan. The Center for Food Integrity reported on public survey results comparing top U.S. issues with topics related to animal welfare and the food system. On a 10-point scale where 10 was “Very concerned”, average responses for the U.S. Economy was 8.07, for Having Enough Food to Feed People in U.S. was 6.92; Humane Treatment of Farm Animals was 6.52; and Access to Accurate Information to Make Healthy Food Choices was 6.39. 
Seek First to Understand
Averages of responses for items in Table 1 suggest that Owner/operators feel it is more important to communicate with the public and consumers about safety of milk products and technology (4.42), inform the public about farming practices (3.93), and improve public understanding of animal welfare (4.17) than to better understand what the consumer thinks about food products and how food is produced (3.34).  One can argue that to effectively communicate, we need to better understand how the public and consumers view various issues and why. Work by Keith Yazmir suggests the need to understand what the public is thinking in order to address their questions and concerns more directly. Yazmir indicated that the questions consumers are asking are not the same ones agriculture is answering and that what they hear from us translates differently for them. 

Building Trust
“Public image of agriculture” ranked 12th with an average response of 4.17 (Table 1 on page 15) suggesting Owner/operators believe we need to address our image. In the book, The Speed of Trust, Covey talks about five levels of trust including market or brand trust and societal trust. He refers to the “Speed of Trust” as a cost of doing business.  He points out that as trust goes down, speed goes down and costs go up. He uses the example following 9/11, where today we spend more time going through airport security and pay more for airfares to cover that cost.  Lack of societal trust in our industry can affect regulations and therefore, speed and cost of doing business. So building trust is important; however, it is difficult with a public so removed from modern farming.

Research by Sapp and others suggests that industry and corporate leaders are unlikely to gain trust simply by telling the public ‘‘we know what we are doing and we are good people.’’ These researchers suspect that actions are needed to promote public confidence in our ability to manage and protect livestock. They suggest consumers don’t necessarily want the facts about animal management practices, but want to trust that farmers will do the right things regarding food safety, animal welfare and the environment. Their finding suggests a need to convey a sense of responsibility to the public in addition to educating them about producer skills and expertise. We can lose trust because of bad players. So it should become a priority to instill best practices on farms and to deal with individuals who do not demonstrate appropriate behavior.    

What Are We Doing to Communicate?
There are numerous efforts to communicate to the public.  Agricultural organizations have posted Websites with information about farming and stories by producers. Farmers and agribusiness professionals also are talking with local community organizations such as Kiwanis and Rotary. Farm tours have increased in popularity while a number of organizations are training producers about how to tell their story and work with the media to better express themselves and communicate important messages. In addition, actions speak. Animal care assessment programs such as National Dairy FARM which has 50% producer participation provide a mechanism for producers to demonstrate oversight. 

Dialogues likely work better than one-way communication approaches but do not reach as broad an audience as mass media. Farm tours provide first-hand observation and create transparency, which should increase trust.  After all, producers are letting the public visit their business, ask questions and take pictures. Weary and others used an on-line session to engage individuals in discussions on tail docking, which created a virtual town hall meeting that allowed participants to see reasons put forward by other participants. They stated this approach provides for un-coerced, broadly inclusive, and reason-based public participation.

We also must consider who our audience should be.  Communicating with those who are making decisions on what to buy and what regulations are appropriate will be more effective than communicating with special interest groups. And the former are more likely to provide honest feedback about their preferences and concerns. We should communicate to our friends and relatives who already have trust in what we do but don’t fully understand how we produce food today. Exit surveys from 2010 Breakfast on the Farm events indicate that 39% of the respondents had friends who own/had owned a farm, while only 20% said they did not have a relative who owns/had owned a farm. 

Are Communication Efforts Working?
We need to determine if our efforts are working. Are we reaching the correct audiences? Do our messages impact knowledge and misperceptions about modern farming? Is there opportunity to have a dialogue so individuals can ask questions? Are we listening?  Are we addressing the right questions and concerns?  Public surveys can help determine which approaches and methods are connecting best with the public, if we are addressing the right questions, and if we are building trust and changing where the public goes for information.   

Communicating with the public and the consumer about how food is produced on modern farms has become a new focus of animal agriculture. This effort involves demonstrating that our industry and producers are fiduciaries, i.e., care takers, because the public wants to trust that those producing food will do what is right. Many organizations are working on connecting to the public. However, we need to keep in mind that communication is a two-way process. As agricultural organizations and food producers, we can’t just tell the public or the consumer what we think they need to know. We need two-way communications to better understand what the public and consumer thoughts are and then attempt to address them. In some cases we may need to adjust how we do things to meet their preferences, remembering that they are the customers. But with efforts by farmers and agricultural organizations, they will become educated customers. To be successful we need to continue to become better communicators and identify effective ways to connect with the public. I think we have a good start on this.     

1. Bitsch, Vera, Kathy Lee, Dean Ross, Ted Ferris, Mike McFadden.  2008.  Dairy Farmers’ Priorities— 2008 Michigan Dairy Industry Survey. Michigan Dairy Review. Vol 13, Issue 4. October.

2 . Consumer Trust in the Food System.  Food System Summit 2010.  Research conducted for Center for Food Integrity. 

3. Covey, Stephen M.R. The Speed of Trust. Simon and Shuster, NY.

4. Ferris, Ted, Faith Cullens, Marilyn Thelen, Dean Ross, Nancy Thelen, Mary Dunckel, and Phil Durst. 2011. Guess Who Came to 2010 Breakfast on the Farm. Vol 16. No. 1. January.

5. Muirhead, Sarah. 2011. Ag's go-to messages not resonating. Feedstuffs FoodLink – Connecting farm to fork. 10/21/2011

6. Nobis, Ken.  The National Dairy F.A.R.M. Program.  Why We Should Participate. 2010. Michigan Milk Messenger. November.

7. Quaife, Tom, Editor. 2011. FARM animal-care program hits the 50% mark.  Dairy Herd Network. 10/25/2011

8. Sapp, Stephen G., Charlie Arnot, James Fallon, Terry Fleck, David Soorholtz, Matt Sutton-Vermeulen, Jannette J.H. Wilson. 2009. Consumer Trust in the U.S. Food System: An Examination of the Recreancy Theorem.  Rural Sociology 74(4), 2009, pp. 525–545.

9. Weary, D. M., C. A. Schuppli and M. A. G. von Keyserlingk. 2011. Tail docking dairy cattle: Responses from an online engagement. J ANIM SCI 2011, 89:3831-3837.


Michigan Dairy Review is published and mailed to all Michigan dairy farmers and individuals working in allied industries. With its ever increasing on-line presence, the MDR target audience has spread beyond Michigan and the U.S.; today electronic subscribers are located in places such as Australia, The Scandinavia, Italy, Mexico, Ireland, Peru, and New Zealand.  

The MDR is the primary communications vehicle for research findings, extension programming, and teaching between faculty and staff in MSU dairy programs and the dairy industry. The MDR web site is paid for by the C. E. Meadows Endowment.

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