The Difficult Conversation

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance hosted a series of food dialogues at locations across the country Thursday. The topic at hand – how do farmers and ranchers communicate with consumers?

People today are becoming increasingly aware of what they are eating and feeding their families. Consumers want to know where their food came from and what processes it went through to get from the field to their fork.

Farmers and ranchers have not always been the most effective communicators and as the nation and the world begins to ask more questions, producers must learn how to respond to those requests.

“Americans want to know where their food comes from, how it was raised and if it is good for their health long-term,” said Bob Stallman, chairman of USFRA and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We realize farmers and ranchers haven’t always done the best job answering Americans’ questions about how food is grown and raised, and hope The Food Dialogues event will be the start of an ongoing dialogue that addresses these questions and more.”

Conversations about food can often be difficult. Today’s consumers are inundated with incorrect information concerning the production of our food. Those false facts translate to skewed viewpoints and incorrect assumptions. Producers must find ways to clarify those falsities without insulting or inciting consumers. It’s a tough task and one that almost everyone in agriculture struggles with.

Just the other day, I received a question from a lady concerning beef my husband and I were selling direct to the public. She wanted to know if our beef was grass feed, antibiotic free and hormone free. No, no and no. But a simple response doesn’t fully explain the situation. Many believe beef must meet those three conditions in order to be safe for consumption. But that is not true at all. Our beef is as nutritionally sound and as safe to consume as anything on the market. I know exactly where they animal came from, where it spent its days grazing and what it ate over the course of its life. How do I explain that our beef does not meet her criteria but it still one of the healthiest sources of protein available? More importantly, how do I respond knowing that the person asking was raised on a farm only miles from our operation?

The hormone question, for example, is one that would take paragraphs to properly explain. The idea of having hormone-free beef– as some consumers believe it should be – is outrageous. Cattle – like humans – must have hormones to survive. It’s part of our natural make-up. So yes, there are hormones in our beef. But compare those hormone levels to other types of protein and even some vegetables and you will find that beef hormone levels are extremely low and less than women find in a daily birth control pill.

That’s a long and complicated explanation for a quick question. And that only accurately explains one of the three questions. Plus the question was asked on a social media forum, which means several more will likely join the conversation. It’s a great opportunity to set the record straight and share our story but only if the information is shared correctly.

As producers and agricultural advocates, we need to become better educated on what we are producing and find ways to quickly, accurately and politely respond to consumers’ question – no matter how outrageous.

If we want to gain and retain consumers’ trust we have to be willing to fully disclose what occurs on our operation. That often takes time, patients and a complete understanding of what you represent.

We have to have these conversations – no matter how difficult or outrageous – and we need to start talking, now.

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