Sarah Schmidt

Join the Conversation to Build Consumer Trust

Scientific research has helped U.S. agriculture companies become the suppliers of the safest and most affordable food supply on the planet, but another kind of research is becoming increasingly essential to the success of food production. Now more than ever, those of us working in agriculture need to understand and respond to the findings of trust research.

Marketers have long known that consumer trust is essential for maintaining and growing sales of food brands. Increasingly, those participating in the earlier stages of the food chain are understanding that they too must cultivate consumer trust.

Consider research introduced last month that indicates consumer beliefs can influence how they evaluate food. In a Boston Northeastern University study, people tasted identical samples of beef jerky, roast beef and ham with the only variable being that some were labeled as coming from a “factory farm” and others from a more natural environment. In every case, the samples that tasters believed to be “factory farmed” meat received lower ratings and were described as “saltier, greasier, and stale.”

Beliefs are driving the purchasing decisions of millennials, the 18-to-35 generation that is expected to represent half the U.S. workforce by 2020. Research shows millennials support companies that focus on people, planet, and profit.

These consumers want to purchase their food from people who think like them, says Terry Fleck, Executive Director of the Center for Food Integrity, a Midwest-based organization focused on helping today’s food system earn consumer trust. The organization’s membership represents a broad spectrum of food companies, from mom-and-pop shops to large corporations.

As consumers become more interested in how their food is grown, processed, and brought to market, the food system must ensure it is doing the right things, in ways that build trust, says Fleck.

“Consumers need to know that we have compassion, responsibility, respect, and are fair people. They’re not going to buy your science,” Fleck says. “They’ll buy your values and then listen to your science. They’re not going to make a decision based on knowledge, but they will make it on feelings and belief.”

The good news is that consumers — rural, suburban, and urban — are willing to get to know those who produce their food. We need to have continual conversations with them about how their food gets from the farm to the dinner table. This is an opportunity to help them understand that today’s food is better aligned with their values and beliefs than perhaps they thought.

At dairy farmer-owned AMPI, building consumer trust begins on our member farms. All milk flowing through our Midwest dairy products manufacturing plants comes from farms that participate in the National FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program. Participation in the program helps dairy farmers better see their operations through consumers’ eyes, and it encourages on-farm changes and improvements to maintain a positive industry image.

Several AMPI members also host farm tours, inviting consumers of all ages to visit their farms to learn more about where their food comes from. A tour at the farm of AMPI members Greg, Faye, and Pat Bakeberg, of Waverly, Minn., annually attracts more than 1,500 visitors.

We also support organizations that help us connect dairy farmers and consumers. For instance, the Midwest Dairy Association hosts a robust website that not only shares consumer-favorite recipes but also has a variety of information about how milk is produced on farms and then made into products such as cheese. A particular favorite for me are the videos that feature real dairy farmers talking about their lives, values, and beliefs. I’m proud to see AMPI members among those featured.

Love it or hate it, social media is also an essential tool for making the farm-to-fork connection. More Americans now turn to the internet for news and information, so this line of communication can’t be ignored. Dairy farmers are blogging and tweeting as well as posting on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to tell their positive story.

If you’re not already engaging in consumer conversation, make a commitment to begin. Take a look at some of the links noted in this article or do some web sleuthing on your own to come up with ideas. There’s a wealth of information out there. Choose the proactive approach that works for you and start talking.