Lost Connections

Modern agriculture emphasizes technology and genetic advances. Consumers just want to feel good about what they're eating. How do we all find common ground?

(Progressive Farmer photo illustration by Brent Warren, Barry Falkner)


Disruption is a catalyst for change. The tech industry has purposely pursued disruption for decades as a means of stimulating growth and innovation. Agriculture is certainly no stranger to disruption and the effect -- good and bad -- it can have on farmers and ranchers, as well as various segments within the industry.

As we enter a new decade, the editors of Progressive Farmer begin a special series exploring those forces of disruption that will define and reshape agriculture. Some of these forces are already in place and gaining traction. Others will appear as events dictate, growing in their level of influence over the next 10 years and beyond.

Future change promises to accelerate at a faster pace, bringing with it even bigger consequences. Lessons will be learned. Insights influenced. Actions taken. How individuals and the industry react and meet these challenges will determine agriculture's future.

It's been a rough 10 years for anyone in a trust-based business. Americans have heard their news is fake, corporations are evil, the stock market is rigged and food labels manipulate consumers.

Agriculture, as a whole, has not fared well through this evolution into a skeptic's universe. Family farmers and ranchers, however, remain in a mostly positive light when consumers are asked who they still trust. Underscore the word "family" here. Simply put, consumers see family farms as good. Corporate farms, on the other hand, are seen as profit-motivated, industrial and bad.

Connecting consumers to the reality that 96% of America's farms and ranches are family-owned, and that size is not a bright-line test for defining good versus bad, will be the challenge of the next decade. It will determine whether consumers and agriculture become closer, or increasingly isolated in their own worlds.


Today's disconnect between consumers and sources of their food is based in a lack of both access and understanding of modern agriculture, says Roxi Beck, who grew up on her family's dairy farm in Minnesota and today works with The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), a not-for-profit group whose mission is to help today's food system earn consumer trust.

"The disconnect we see today exists because there's this lack of in-person access, or feet on the farm, for the general public," Beck notes. "Less than 2% of people actually farm today in this country. People do not trust what they do not know."

Yet 65% of people tell CFI they want to know more about where their food comes from. The group's latest report finds that while farmers are trusted by a majority of consumers, if those same people believe operation size, scale or profitability are emphasized over ethical decision-making, trust is greatly diminished.

"Over the last 50 years, the general thinking has been that the bigger the industry, the less we can trust it," Beck explains. "We've seen instances of broad food-safety issues, which create perceptions that because one farm does something one way, every farm follows those same methods. That becomes a challenge when an industry is small in numbers but large in impact.

"Today, most production farms are large. But, when we can authentically say that we are a family-owned operation, show pictures, tell our stories ... we gain opportunities to connect."

Where farmers and ranchers fear there is too much danger in being transparent, Beck says that space will be filled with other voices happy to tell their version of ag's story. "They will tell your story in a way that you are not going to be pleased with," she adds.


Much of the last decade has been awash in fear-based marketing, including a lot of absence label claims. These "free-from" labels herald the removal of something, such as the "non-GMO" claim.

"This really picked up over the last five years," Beck notes. "It plays into what marketers know works to sell product. It encourages misinformation and fear. It's truthful, but it's not the whole truth. You can have gluten-free water, but is that the whole truth?"

Marketing that relies on fear and encourages misinformation is probably not the direction of the future, trends expert Daniel Levine believes.

Head of The Avant-Guide Institute, based in New York, Levine tracks consumer habits across the spectrum, noting what people buy and why. "We don't believe trends are siloed by industry anymore. Consumers don't look for different things between the food they buy and the car they drive. There are cross-connections. It's about how we want to be seen. Our buying culture and lifestyle are connected today in ways they weren't in the past."

Moving forward, Levine sees a future where people are not just looking for foods that tie to body image but functional foods that will be good for their minds.

"I'm talking about foods not just to fill you up but to put you in a certain mood. While it's hard to pinpoint the next big fad, it will come out of a trend based on this idea of using food for better physical, mental and even spiritual health. I believe that means more science-based, result-driven marketing, less fear-based." He adds a little "snake oil and hype" come with any fad, so the best course is not to try to predict or build business plans around fads. Rather, focus on trends.

"Millennials are an interesting group, because they are not necessarily attached to money," Levine notes. "They seem to care more about relationships and environment. Food has always had an important place in bringing people together, and we think the value of that will increase. But, that food will fit into this belief system where it's a positive for body, mind and the environment. Sustainability will be a key part of that."

Levine, like Beck, encourages farmers to focus on transparency in their interactions with consumers. "There's a lot of distrust in our world at the moment," he says. "The way we combat that is through being open. That engenders trust. Consumers want to hear from farmers and ranchers who produce their food."

He notes some major brands are already incorporating this idea into labeling and social media programs.

"You can now look at your can of tuna, for example, and you'll find a 'Trace Your Catch' code. That code will tell you where the fish came from that went into that can of tuna. You'll see where they were processed. It's a terrific example of where this is going and how producers and manufacturers can be clear and transparent with consumers."


That's the type of connection Joanna Miller looks for as she decides which items to drop into her grocery cart every week. At 31, Miller falls into the millennial market niche. She lives in Sacramento, California, with husband, Aaron, and 18-month-old daughter, Margot. She does most of the meal planning and grocery buying, and admits now that she's a mom, she thinks a lot more about food and where it comes from.

"I really consider, and even research, what she should eat," she says of Margot. "It's important that I give her things that are healthy. Lots of veggies and fruits. I definitely notice labeling more now than I used to."

Miller does most of her grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and Target, but also goes to her area farmers' market. She subscribes to Blue Apron meal-delivery service, as well as Raised Real, an online food-delivery service for babies. The site says it is "Real Food for Tiny Humans"­ -- organic, clean label and plant-based.

She appreciates that both services come with information cards that tell where the food is sourced. In the case of Blue Apron, that includes meats.

"I like that it says there are no antibiotics, no hormones and that the welfare of the animal is considered," Miller says. She adds she doesn't want to come across as perfect. Sometimes, she buys things that may not be the healthiest choice. In other words, she's normal. She's also normal in that she's willing to pay more for products that provide information about sourcing, as well as organics. She'll pay more for eggs, for example, if the carton tells her where the chickens that laid the eggs are housed and how they are treated. Generic store brands may be cheaper, but Miller says knowing she is not supporting someone who engages in poor treatment of animals is important.

Meat is probably the most expensive item she buys, and she wants to know all she can about it. "If it's too expensive some weeks, I may go with a vegetarian meal," she says. "I don't like to pay for meat I don't know much about. I assume if the label doesn't tell me otherwise, it's been produced by some large conglomerate that may have a poor record for animal welfare. I don't want to pay someone to treat animals unethically."


Miller's buying habits are representative of a way of thinking informed by a litany of digital influencers. Kent Lewis is an expert on digital marketing strategies who helps businesses create connections and grow through the use of digital channels.

Living in Portland, Oregon, Lewis started Anvil Media in 2000 and is an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches a course in search engine marketing. He says there have been some notable changes in the digital lay of the land.

"Let's start with the idea of product endorsements," he says. "We used to only have celebrity endorsements on TV. Now, anybody can give you a recommendation, including total strangers. The fact that we are trusting total strangers to guide our buying choices is huge."

Case in point: Lewis says the majority of product searches are now seen on Amazon, not Google. Consumers go to Amazon to learn about products by reading reviews, not just to buy.

"And, YouTube is now the third-largest search engine in the world," he adds. "We go there to learn how to do things from total strangers. We look at the products they use to make that repair or build that piece of furniture. What we have is this global digital world where anyone can be an influencer. You don't have to be a celebrity."

Lewis defines an influencer as anyone on social media with a following and the ability to change behaviors. There are four tiers of influencers.

"There's the celebrity influencer, which, as you'd expect, is big. We say that's over 1 million followers. Next are macro influencers, with 50,000 to 1 million followers. Micro influencers have 10,000 to 50,000 followers. This is a niche area usually, like farming. Lastly, something newer, we have nano influencers, with 1,000 to 10,000 followers. These have the highest engagement, even though they are the smallest community. This is generally a person who really knows his or her subject well. You follow them religiously, and they inform and influence your choices."

Lewis says marketers are largely focused on that most-coveted group of consumers, 18- to 34-year-old buyers. "This gets you future buyers. We have to find a way to appeal to the younger crowd to continue. We have to shift marketing to make sense to those younger buyers."

He points out that what matters to consumers changes generationally. Gen Z and Gen Y, for example, are not that interested in healthcare at the moment. "Very few are married, they aren't having kids yet. But, at the same time, they are very aware. They will buy or not buy a product based solely on social, sustainable and ethical models. It's ingrained in who they are. You have to have a sustainable message for them."

Lewis says to connect with these groups, farmers have to learn to lean on their storytelling abilities. It's not enough to say you're sustainable. It's the why and the how that matter.

"It's the story that sells. We want to know the generational history of your land. We want to hear about the lean years, the good years. We want to know how you've used technology to evolve, and how it's changed farm management. We want to know what you do in a normal day. What makes you interesting? What makes you human?"

There is a mindset among some in agriculture that because they believe science backs up what they do, they should not have to explain it. Lewis says when you have facts, share them. "But, if you tell your story in an angry or defensive way, it doesn't matter if you are right. The story can backfire."


If Lewis were to jump on a plane and fly from Oregon to Tennessee to tell John and Debra Bradley they are "nano influencers," the couple would likely just have a laugh and ask him to stay for dinner. Hospitality is a front-door priority in the South.

The Bradleys also have an "open-gate" policy when it comes to their cattle operation. They keep about 150 head of mostly Angus cows here on Spring Valley Farms, a Lutts-based operation that is a Tennessee Century Farm, started in 1893. The couple sells beef directly to Memphis, Tennessee's, Peabody Hotel. Head chef Andreas Kisler visited their farm personally before sourcing beef from them. In addition, they market through Tallgrass Meat Co., in Columbia, Tennessee, and sell directly to consumers.

What makes the Bradleys stand out isn't so much their sales but their digital connections to people. Spring Valley Farms has 5,690 followers on Facebook, many frequently commenting or liking posts by the couple.

"For eight years, we've made sure to post every day," John says. "Debra does about 90% of it, and it's always positive. Things happen here on the farm, and we'll turn it into a funny story or an adventure. We've found that people love dogs, horses and cows. You can't go wrong with a picture of any of those."

Their followers come from 44 countries and speak 24 languages. The majority (71%) are women. Broken down by age, about 30% are over 65; 27% are 55 to 64, 18% are 45 to 54; 15% are 34 to 44; 7% are 25 to 34; and just 2% are 18 to 24.

John has had a long run in agriculture. He is probably best known for his time as head of the University of Tennessee's Milan Experiment Station. He and Debra always wanted to have a cattle farm and knew they'd found the right spot the first time they drove up the gravel road that ends at this very spot.

"We were so excited, we bought some cows before we even had the place fenced in," John laughs. "That was not a good idea. But, it all worked out."

Debra says when they started promoting beef sales, they tried other ways to connect to consumers, including advertising. They keep coming back to Facebook and their website because it works. "Our time is limited," she says. "So, we do what we know works. We could be out marketing more, but our hearts are in the production side. It's always a balance. Everything we do is because we enjoy it, and we want to do it."

On direct sales, they specialize in grass-fed, grain-finished beef, also offering some all grass-fed. Beef is aged 21 days, and everything is USDA Choice. They also sell replacement heifers and market some steers.

"The way we see this, it's hard to make a living in the cattle business going to the sale barn," John says. "We have one chance a year to help that cow pay for herself, so we do what we can to make that happen."

In addition to social media, the Bradleys invite people to the farm regularly. "Every time we have a group out and we feed them, we get new customers," Debra says.

She adds, people just want to know that animals are cared for, fed and treated well.

"There's nothing wrong with someone wanting to know who raised their beef or what type of people we are. We say, 'Always make the customer happy.' They want to identify with us."

John notes because their consumers cover a wide range demographically, they've been able to see a lot of differences in how younger people buy and prepare beef compared to their own generation.

"Most 20- to 35-year-olds aren't prepared to handle a quarter or a half of beef," John says. "Many of them don't have freezers. A large share of them have no idea what to do with a roast.

"What that means is we have two roles. We supply them with beef -- the amount, the cuts they want. But, we can also educate them about how to cook a good roast. So, next time, maybe they'll try that. We share what we know. In the end, I guess you'd say we're all learning from one another."

Bridges Take Time:

Influencer marketing campaigns, notably one of the most effective ways to connect consumers to farmers, take time. These bridges also require strategy, says Kent Lewis, digital marketing strategy expert and head of Anvil Media. He believes in the years to come, influencer marketing will play a key role in the dynamic between the two groups. Trends he sees ahead revolve around these ideas.

GLASS HOUSES. Research shows authenticity is important to 84% of consumers, and they use this "authenticity ruler" to decide which influencers they follow. Millennials are skeptics when it comes to the motives of businesses. Takeaway: Be transparent; be real.

THE BIG PICTURE. Instead of focusing only on the immediate customer, whether it's a business-to-business (B2B) relationship or a business-to-consumer relationship, the future will bring about a less segmented arena. Long-term thinking about how to benefit more than the one segment a business is directly related to will help align influencers' goals. Takeaway: You aren't just speaking for your farm but for your industry.

THINK SMALL. The trend to be small is going to get big. Larger brands are moving from macro to micro influencers, in some cases even nano or niche influencers. The sweet spot will be more relationships with influencers that have 250 to 10,000 followers. Takeaway: There is no such thing as being too small to impact a market.

FLIP THE SCRIPT. Influencers are sharing more images and videos geared toward being empathetic to followers rather than being aspirational to them. This marks a shift and requires both trust and flexibility to hit the right note. Takeaway: Preach less; listen more; respond with kindness.

INTEGRATION METRICS. Search engine marketing will grow in importance and value. Link to other brands and content, and find ways to enhance credibility using search engines such as Google. Those who maintain blogs or write articles can have a far reach through a good search engine optimization plan. Takeaway: Learn how keywords bring more people to your website.

B2B GROWTH. This could be an untapped area of opportunity. About 30% of influencer marketing currently originates from the B2B sector, and those influencers are usually professionals in the industry. Most brands are looking for ways to grow or maintain leadership by leveraging expert content and brands. Takeaway: Stop talking so much to one another; get out on the big stage.


> The Center for Food Integrity: www.foodintegrity.org

> The Avant-Guide Institute: www.avantguide.com

> Anvil Media: www.anvilmediainc.com

> Spring Valley Farms: www.springvalley.farm


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