Ag Groups Search for Unified Voice

5/18/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — Farmers, by tradition, are an independent lot. It’s a given that if you put 10 of them in a room, you’ll get 10 different opinions.

But it’s that inherent independent streak that has made farmers vulnerable to misunderstandings by the general public.

Now, some are saying that while farmers might not agree on everything, they must find some unity so they can better explain agricultural issues to the consuming public.

On Tuesday, representatives from several agricultural commodity groups gathered at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center for a forum sponsored by PennAg Industries Association.

Chris Herr, the association’s executive vice president, said the goal was to develop a road map to continue the public dialogue that started more than a year ago with the “Today’s Agriculture” exhibit at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

That effort during the past two Farm Shows sought to foster a better public understanding of agriculture by depicting modern livestock systems and practices for the half million people walking through the exhibit’s displays each year.

“The general public just doesn’t have a problem” with farming, Herr said. “What we have realized” after the Farm Show is that “we need to take the next step.”

Trent Loos, a Nebraska rancher, broadcast personality and agriculture advocate, moderated Tuesday’s discussion. Loos and his wife have a purebred Angus and Limousin cattle herd.

Loos said he looks for an opportunity every day to talk to people about his farming story. He said he’s talked to mothers, young professionals, teens and others to correct the misperceptions many of them have about food and agriculture.

“If there is someone working against us, there is an opportunity,” Loos said, challenging his audience to take similar action.

Joining Loos for one roundtable discussion were Thomas Rippon, a McDonald’s owner/operator from Union County, and Julie Flinchbaugh, market manager for Flinchbaugh Orchard in Hellam, Pa.

In addition to his restaurant, Rippon has a 100-acre cash crop farm. He and Flinchbaugh talked about the insights they’ve gleaned from interacting with customers who want to discuss agricultural issues.

“You have a customer that is paying attention to you,” Rippon said, and that provides an excellent opening to talk about food production.

It could be directly, or indirectly, he said, but “to win in the long term you have to connect with consumers’ hearts, not just their minds.”

Describing her family’s farm as a “local food hub” that sells products grown on nearby farms in addition to its own, Flinchbaugh said, “Our market gives us the opportunity to talk to the community one on one. ... We put a face to their food.”

In addition to the orchard, the Flinchbaughs operate a grain and hog operation, which gives them expertise on a broad range of farm topics.

That can include explaining why they are not an organic farm, she said, or how they operate as a family farm corporation when they get uninformed complaints about “corporate” farms.

Of course, those conversations also work both ways, and Rippon and Flinchbaugh took time to describe how they gather feedback from their customers.

“Customer relationships are all about listening,” asking questions and not jumping to conclusions, Flinchbaugh said.

Rippon agreed, saying that in addition to providing customers with McDonald’s contact information, he gives them a local phone number so they can provide feedback directly to him.

Rippon said customers are not as loyal as they used to be. The millennial generation, which makes up a large portion of McDonald’s market share, has a shorter attention span and is more socially aware than previous generations, he said.

“Millennials want it their way and they want it customized,” Rippon said.

McDonald’s is working to adapt to this new generation’s demands, he said, but it’s not an easy process because of the large size of the company.

Both Flinchbaugh and Rippon said the debate over pink slime, the derogatory term for the lean, finely textured beef that is used as an additive for extra lean ground beef, put their employees on the front lines when the public started rejecting the product.

For Rippon, the issue was mainly addressed at the corporate level, where the decision was made to pull the product from the restaurant chain’s beef line.

For Flinchbaugh, it was a matter of making sure to connect with her farm market employees at the beginning of the day to provide information for potential customer questions.

“Sometimes, public opinion is not the most well-informed,” Rippon said, “but they have their opinion. It’s like a tsunami and it’s going to roll you backward. You are just trying to keep your head above the water in the right direction before it hits you.”

The products in Flinchbaugh’s farm market and his restaurant may come from different sources, Rippon said, but both businesses are committed to quality.

Rippon said all of McDonald’s suppliers are involved in the company’s sustainable initiatives. For food supplies, they have custody traceability, which came in handy for reassuring customers when the horse meat controversy erupted this spring in Europe.

Animal welfare is a part of the discussion at the corporation, as well, and McDonald’s has announced that it will phase out pork suppliers who use sow gestation crates by 2022.

“That’s a tough mandate, but it’s here to stay,” Rippon said, even though it’s going to increase costs at the farm level.

The decision to phase out this type of housing system was made at the executive level, he said.

Loos asked Rippon if a group of farmers were to organize a protest over the gestation stall ban whether that would help change the policy.

Rippon said he thought that type of protest would not advance the farmers’ viewpoint and would cause more harm than good.

“I would go through less confrontational instead of confrontational methods,” he said.

A petition, making contacts with local owner/operators or starting a national movement would be more productive, Rippon said.

Loos asked Flinchbaugh about her farm’s focus on local foods and what she thought about produce that is picked in another part of the country and shipped in.

She said she recognizes the value of those fruits and vegetables, but that farmers produce different varieties for different purposes.

Using strawberries as an example, she said the ones typically found in a grocery store are a larger variety that ships better than the locally grown ones her customers prefer.

With those insights into customer interactions in mind, Loos challenged the audience to adopt a simple goal.

“Every person in the food business’s goal is to educate one person every day and be a good listener,” he said.

Farmers don’t need a public relations campaign, Loos said. They need to put a human face on their farms.<\c> Photos by Charlene Shupp Espenshade

Trent Loos talks to the audience about how he shares his farming story.

From left, Trent Loos, Julie Flinchbaugh and Tom Rippon discuss consumer issues.

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