Responding to “consumer demands” isn’t necessarily about making some wholesale changes in farm operating practices, say Prairie farmers contacted for the February Farmer Panel.
Those often heard claims that “the consumer is demanding…” everything from healthier, safer food, to reduced environmental footprint, to improved livestock and production practices need to be heard, say panel members. But sometimes it may just mean farmers need to do a better job of explaining to consumers how they actually do farm.
Here is what panel members had to say when asked how important is the phrase “consumers are demanding…?”
Rod Bradshaw, Innisfail, Alta.
As a long-time vegetable producer, with wheat, barley and canola included in rotation as well, Rod Bradshaw says it has been important to him to work to shape consumer demand, or consumer perception of agriculture.
“As long as we have been involved in direct marketing going back to the mid 80s we try to influence or inform consumer thinking,” says Bradshaw, who farms with family members at Innisfail in central Alberta. “With vegetable crops, consumers often ask ‘is it organic?’ And we say no, but our standard response today is that we believe in the science and technology used in agriculture, and used appropriately we produce a very safe and wholesome food product.
“Sometimes I ask a consumer how much more they are willing to pay for organic, and I have been told 10 per cent more. And I tell them for me to produce organic the price would have to be double, because I would need to use different production practices, including an extended rotation, and many consumers aren’t interested in paying double.”
Bradshaw says their farm has made a point of having an “open house” for customers, long before the idea of farm visits was popular. “We feel it is important to show our customers how we produce their food,” says Bradshaw. “It is getting now that consumers are three or four generations removed from the farm. So for several years we have had 200 or more customers come to our farm on an open house day to see how we produce what we produce. By being open and transparent hopefully we are shaping consumer demand. They can see that we produce a good product and we are not out here destroying and pillaging the environment but are committed to looking after the land.”
Gerrid Gust, Davidson, Sask.
Gerrid Gust says he can produce just about anything the consumer wants, in any way they want it, but he needs to first see how much they are willing to pay. “I hear lots of talk about producing organic, or producing gluten free, or certifying your farm to produce under ISO (international) standards,” says Gust. “But, to my knowledge most consumers aren’t willing to pay for it. And I think if they ever are willing to pay for it, then it is up to individual farmers to decide how that fits with their business operation.”
Farmers are willing to adapt and do what the market wants, as long as they are paid for their efforts, says Gust, who runs a grain, oilseed and pulse crop farming operation at Davidson, about half way between Regina and Saskatoon.
“Forty years ago on this farm we didn’t grow lentils, or peas or canola, and now we do,” says Gust. “If the market says there is a demand farmers will jump on new crops in a big way, and produce it to customer specifications, but they aren’t going to do it for free.”
Gust, who is also on the board of Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, says he recently was part of a Saskatchewan government trade mission to Algeria, Morocco, Dubai and Ivory Coast countries.
“We talked to consumers, and bakers and millers and they want high-quality, consistent-quality wheat, delivered in a timely manner, and produced under ISO standards and they are willing to pay, but they are not willing to pay very much,” says Gust. “And I am willing to produce everything to the specifications they want, but I want to be paid a lot… so those are our two positions.
“I really don’t get too excited when I hear any consumer “is demanding” something, until I see what they are willing to pay,” says Gust.
He says often concerning environmental issues consumers or society are urging farmers to be good stewards of the land, which is fair, but Gust says for most producers that is standard operating practice.
“We try to do that every day,” says Gust. “Each generation on this farm has tried to do a better job of farming practices than the last. Like they say “we’re not inheriting this land from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our kids.” I want this land to be as productive as possible for my family and if they don’t want it, then it still needs to be productive for the person who does buy it. No one is going to pay much for it, if my land is worn out and unproductive.”
Cherilyn Nagel, Mossbank, Sask.
In an era of “the consumer is demanding…” farmers need to not take their social licence to farm for granted, says Cherilyn Nagel, who along with her husband farms at Mossbank, Sask.
Nagel, who has been very active in mostly ag policy issues for the past decade, says her focus these days is to work with farmers, ranchers and consumers to help educate people on both sides of the issue.
“As farmers we can take this social licence to farm for granted,” says Nagel. We can think we have a right to farm, whereas really we have a privilege to farm. As an agriculture industry farmers do an excellent job of producing crops and livestock, and being excellent stewards of the land, but they need to be able to communicate that to consumers.”
In 2015 and again in 2016 Nagel — along with farming — is also working as a facilitator for Farm and Food Care, Saskatchewan. It is part of a national initiative aimed at increasing consumer understanding of the agriculture industry and at the same time works with farmers and ranchers to help them communicate their story better.
“It is often heard that consumers are concerned about agriculture, but what they are really concerned about is food — they want to know how their food is produced,” says Nagel. “And in agriculture we use a lot of jargon, or we assume people just understand and with most consumers now at least two generations removed from they farm, they don’t understand and they find it confusing.
“So my role with Farm and Food Care is to serve as a facilitator working with farmers and ranchers to help them better explain their message to consumers. I will talk with consumers at every opportunity I can, but we need more farmers and ranchers telling their story.”
Nagel says there is nothing wrong with producers using the latest technology, but they need to be able to explain why to consumers. “If you are growing GMO crops, for example, that’s fine, but know why and be able to explain that to a consumer so they understand too,” she says. “If the public doesn’t trust us (the agriculture industry) then we could see policies or guidelines come along that we don’t want. So we need to be able to talk to consumers and to the public to protect our social licence.”
Greg Stamp, Stamp Seeds, Enchant, Alta.
As the second generation on the southern Alberta family farm, Greg Stamp says “consumer or media demand” doesn’t necessarily change how he farms, but it makes him more aware of the how and why he uses certain production practices.
“When I hear reports about what consumers are demanding — and sometimes it may be more about what the media is saying — but when I hear that what it does do is make me realize how important it is to document and justify what we are doing on the farm,” says Stamp. “It is about keeping good records, it is about if we are using a certain herbicide then knowing what weeds we wanted to control and how the product was used. It doesn’t necessarily mean I will change what I do, but it makes me stop and know I can be accountable for how we are farming.” †