So much has been written about the three big factors facing agriculture today – uncertainty over the next farm bill, variability of weather and the extreme volatility of commodity prices and input costs. But we may have lost sight of a much more insidious threat to agriculture – society’s changing perception of it.
“You’ve heard the rhetoric,” said American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman, speaking at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference, in Tunica, Miss. “You know who the players are. We have a society that is far removed from the farm. We’ve known that a long time.”
But as of late, that mere disconnect is morphing into something much more perplexing, according to Stallman.
“Society doesn’t care as much that American agriculture has the capability to feed the world. That has changed. Consumers today are really interested in the health impacts of the food that is produced. They want to know that we share their values, in terms of the environment and sustainability.”
That’s all well and good, says Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Columbus, Texas. But this consumer emphasis on environment and sustainability doesn’t translate to modern production agriculture.
“Consumers still love farmers and ranchers. Surveys show that,” Stallman said. “But if you want to know which farmers and ranchers they love, it’s those who have small operations, those who are growing organic vegetables, selling free range eggs who have a few hogs they let run loose. Then they package the meat and sell it in the local store.
“That’s the image that consumers like. When you start talking about producers like us in this room, and when you start talking about farmers who have a million dollars in assets, that is big ag to consumers. And to them, big ag doesn’t need support.”
Stallman says agriculture is pulling together to counter this growing misperception, with the creation of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Virtually all commodity groups are supporting this effort.
According to its Web site (http://usfraonline.org/about/) USFRA consists of a “wide range of prominent farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners, and marks the first time agricultural groups at the national, regional and state levels have collaborated to lead the dialogue and answer Americans’ questions about how we raise our food – while being stewards of the environment, responsibly caring for our animals and maintaining strong businesses and communities.”
The alliance’s goal is to connect with the consumer directly, Stallman said. “We need to explain what we’re trying to do. We need to have a dialogue with them. That’s what we’re going to have to do to offset some of the agendas out there that basically trash and diminish what we do as producers in this country. We can’t have third parties out there telling consumers how they need to think.”
It just goes to show, the seed you plant in a consumer’s mind can be just as important as the one you plant in the ground.