The first half of 2020 was amazing for agriculture as Canadians were focused on food quality and security.
Consumers were interested in being part of the solution and, at the very least, wanted more information about where their food came from. Local became in vogue and instead of standing in line at the checkout, many families chose to check in on Canadian farms.
How do Canadian farmers capture this interest and hold its space in the years to come?
Just because there is interest does not translate into staying power. The diesel Volkswagen was popular once, as were ostriches and PMU (pregnant mare urine) barns. Consumers drove away from the diesel when public trust was broken. The ostrich industry did not, in the early years, have the critical infrastructure in place for processing and the appetite for the product was underdeveloped. As for PMU barns, research indicated that hormone replacement therapy may increase breast cancer and heart attacks in women, which resulted in lower demand and horses being put out to pasture.
These are but a few examples of how quickly what looks like a quick win can turn into total destruction of a sector.
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Today, agriculture or the production of food, looks like a rock star in a world littered with uncertainty and the unknown. There is a comfort in knowing where food comes from or in growing it oneself. We have turned back — to the land.
How does agriculture nurture its elite spot in the hearts of her consumers?
Agriculture is highly competitive and deeply rooted in divisive behaviour. Much of this comes from the fight for shelf space or feeds into sculpting consumer preference. A good example is the top three proteins: beef, pork, and chicken, which compete for the shelf. Interestingly, as the sectors faced off, the plant-based protein industry quietly cultivated both profile and interest. Meanwhile the new Canadian food guide advises for the consumption of protein and lists 21 sources of readily available proteins (including the big three). Each of those protein sources has merit and cultural preference.
Is one better than the other?
One is not better than the other, but each offers a slightly different nutrient profile. This means that to gain consumers’ attention one must highlight the value of that protein.
And in today’s world, that product also has to be convenient, and come with both instructions and a story.
Why a story?
To build public trust you must build a relationship that is authentic and easy to understand. This can be challenging when chapters in that story involve complex processing or changes to the product that you may or may not have control of.
Selling a product from the farm and at the farm is easy. Answering questions on packing or processing is a little more difficult, but it cannot include trashing another sector (such as beef versus chicken), production practice (such as organic versus conventional) or process (such as packing houses).
To build a relationship and our story we must be collaborative, know our product and the process and present it without bias.
The food supply chain is complex and involves many stakeholders, processes, markets and systems. It is not without fault but what it does is manage inventory so that there is food on Canadian shelves. To do this one needs critical infrastructure and with the gravitation back to the farm, the demand for local critical infrastructure has never been greater. To sell meat you must slaughter, to sell vegetables you must carefully wash them, to sell fruit you need no-bruising processes and packaging.
All of this takes both systems and people. Presenting agriculture — the whole of agriculture — in its best light may attract the people we need and the money for infrastructures.
For the critical infrastructures to function and food supply chains to work, there is a huge need for data and as farmers, we need to pay attention to this requirement. Although agriculture is one of the most technically advanced industries in the world and the science behind it is astounding, there may be a gap between this background and the farmer — and an even wider space between the science and the consumer.
Closing the gap requires farmers to know what is happening beyond the farm gate.
Where is the proof of the value in a particular product or the data that one needs to support a fruit-processing plant in your region? We must address as farmers why there is a seemingly perpetual perception within the industry of hard work, poor markets and wide ravines between farmer and consumer.
The simple facts are: The gap is narrow this day, the consumer is excited and is looking for a relationship in an uncertain and transparent world; the technology is in play to support creative, collaborative change; and your story has value.
The invitation is there for farmers to lead in the food space by focusing on consumer trust and need, collaboration, authentic representation, knowledge beyond the farm gate, technical innovation and food-secure processes and systems. This we can do.