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Farmers learn how to connect with consumers

Donna Moenning with the Center for Food Integrity says farmers can connect with consumers through shared values. (Michelle Rook, Special to Agweek)1 / 2
Participants at the Developing Consumer Trust Workshop learn how to tell their story to consumers. (Michelle Rook, Special to Agweek)2 / 2

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Research shows most consumers want to know more about where their food comes from. Farmers and agribusiness professionals learned what that means for them as advocates for the industry at the Developing Consumer Trust Workshop in Brookings.

The workshop was put on by the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council as part of their Hungry for Truth Initiative designed to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers as they get farther away from the farm and food production.

Donna Moenning with the Center for Integrity shared research they conducted with 2,000 consumers nationwide, which focused on consumer trends and perceptions of food, farming and farmers. One of the predominant findings is the hunger consumers have for transparency about their food supply.

"Eighty percent of consumers say tell me more," she said. "I want to know more about how food is produced, who is producing it and why?"

Moenning told participants that means they need to be transparent and tell consumers what they do on their farm and why they use new innovations like biotechnology.

For years farmers also have answered consumer questions about farming and the production techniques they use with science-based answers. Moenning said that no longer is their only line of communication.

"Research and science is still very critical, but let's connect first on that level of shared values because we want to build trust," she said. "We need to listen to consumers, we need to ask questions. We need to understand what is important to them, what their values are."

Farmers also need to change their approach and engage consumers by having a conversation with them and not just sharing facts and figures about their farm.

"It's a conversation because we are asking questions, we are having a dialogue we are listening to their interests and their concerns," Moenning said.

The research also identified hot-button issues with consumers, and topping the list was their desire for healthy and affordable food for their family. Moenning also discussed some other issues that may come up.

"People definitely have an interest in antibiotic use, they want to know about pesticides and how and why they're used, they want to know about hormones, they want to know about GMOs," she said.

She said it is helpful for the agricultural industry to know these trends when engaging with consumers.

Workshop attendees participated in various activities to learn how to identify and use shared values in a conversation and how to tell their story. Richard Vasgaard, Centerville, S.D., farmer, routinely talks to consumers at various livestock open houses and public outreach events as president of Ag United for South Dakota. He said the training is invaluable in helping him better connect with that group.

"There's so many misconceptions out there of what we do and how we do things, and the only way we can close that gap and educate them is to get a conversation started with them," he said.

Moenning also shared tips for how farmers can use social media to show what they do on their farm and better connect with consumers. She said farmers and agribusiness professionals can use any form of social media such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The important part is that they are sharing their story.

"Videos and pictures are most powerful right now and short bites of information," Moenning said.

Laurie Johnson and her husband own a cow-calf and lamb-to-feeder operation near South Shore, S.D., and she regularly shares what she's doing on the farm via social media.

"Today going forward it will change my approach of when people do ask me questions or when I post something on social media or I see a question on social media," she said.

She believes engaging with consumers is as important as the production techniques or marketing skills she uses on her farm.

"They are our number one customer," Johnson said. "If we don't have our consumers we're not going to be in a job, we're not going to be producing a product, and they vote with their dollar."

The workshop was part of the Hungry for Truth Initiative. In its third year, the program has been driven by South Dakota soybean farmers with the goal of bridging the gap between farmers and consumers. South Dakota Soybean Association President and Vermillion, S.D., farmer Jerry Schmitz said they hope workshop participants gained the knowledge and confidence to engage with the public.

"Farmers have a story to share, an honest story," he said. "Let's share that story and let them understand why we do the things we do."