Chances are, you have a smart phone. You use it to check email, make social media posts, take pictures, send and receive texts, search the internet, listen to music and podcasts, and you may even use your phone for that most old fashioned of applications: calling someone.
By design, your smart phone benefits you. But do you know how your smart phone operates? Granted, you know how to access many of the applications your handheld device offers, but do you know how your phone works? Do you know how it was made? Or even where? Nope, you don’t.
Put simply, you needn’t understand the science, technology, or production methods used to make your phone, to effectively work with your phone.
That’s our consumer when it comes to food. They don’t need to know — or in many cases even care to know — the science or back story of food production.
Imagine Your Phone Is Our Consumer’s Food
Just as you’ve become accustomed to having your phone constantly within reach and always having a signal, our customer has gotten accustomed to having plenty of food in a vast array of choices. At least here in North America and other developed countries.
So don’t fault them for wanting their food their way and foregoing the education. Their belly is full despite their lack of education from us in Ag.
The Problem With “Educating The Consumer”
When we in Agriculture say, “we need to educate the consumer,” it sounds a lot like: “We’re going to do things the way we choose out here in commodity Ag production and tell our customers they need to accept it.” It’s generally used to justify how we do things in light of scrutiny.
I’m not saying there’s not a need to inform our non-farm customer base of the amazing things we do to produce our bounty. I’m merely pointing out that most calls to educate the consumer arise from our defensive nature when consumers question our processes, be they in animal care, crop protection, or environmental stewardship.
There’s one more glaring problem with Ag’s oft-used slogan imploring we in the business to “educate our consumers:” It implies our customers are stupid. Granted, there’s a difference between stupidity and ignorance. But to the person on the receiving end of being told they need educated, it doesn’t sound that way.
Change The Curriculum
For our industry to survive, we need consumers. For consumers to survive, they need us. We’re completely dependent on each other. But that doesn’t mean our customers are without choice. As technology increasingly allows us to produce in surplus, our customers will become more demanding because they can be.
53% of the U.S. population consider themselves foodies, per a 2019 OnePoll, with foodie defined as a person with a particular interest in food. Today’s consumer has an intense interest in food — note the pandemic-induced increase in home baking for example — they just want it their way, despite our education efforts.
I’m all for providing information to our consumers about the fabulous-ness of our farming and food production systems. I’ve been doing so for years and will continue to do so. I’m simply calling for a change to the curriculum.
“Educating the consumer” has been a reactionary rallying cry to defend how we do what we do in commodity production. Our customers are demanding different — and sometimes better — options.
Perhaps it’s time for we in Ag to follow the old business axiom about “meeting the customer where they are.” We should adjust our mindset and array of production methods to serve customers, rather than thinking we can educate them.
After all, Ag — like all businesses — is a consumer driven one. Done right, it might mean higher margins in more differentiated products. Remember, you moved on from a flip phone to a 5G smart phone and paid a lot more for it. You still don’t know how it works, but you’re getting more perceived utility from it!
Damian Mason is an Agricultural economist, farm owner, business man, podcast producer, and food author. Find him at www.damianmason.com