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Consumers Influencing Farming Trends

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, December 7, 2018

Today's food consumers may be more disconnected from agriculture than previous generations, but that doesn't mean their influence on the food and agriculture industry is any less. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. According to a panel of speakers participating in last week's Agbioscience Innovation Summit in Indianapolis, today's "foodies" are more powerful than ever, dictating new rules for how eggs, meat, milk and crops are produced.

In the past, farmers and the food industry were concerned that consumers, with their changing preferences, were taking them "where they didn't want to go," said Beth Bechdol, conference organizer and CEO of AgriNovus Indiana. Now, as food companies take note of consumers' growing distrust, and even aversion, to new technologies that make food both safer and more sustainable, they are trying not to react defensively, but to adapt.

"How do we respond to the increasing power of the food consumer?" asked moderator Jason Lusk, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University.

One panelist, Bob Krouse, CEO of Midwest Poultry Services in Mentone, had an answer.

"We need to think about the consumer every day" in business formulation and planning, he said. As a sixth-generation company that has been in business for over 140 years, Midwest Poultry Services has had to reinvent itself many times to stay relevant.

"Whatever you were doing before isn't what you're going to be doing tomorrow," Krouse said.

He noted that food producers and processors can't afford to lose sight of where their customers are going.

"It's really an exciting time to be in the egg industry," he said, adding that per-capita consumption is increasing.

However, Krouse said consumer preferences can change, and that fact can complicate a company's business plans as it charts a course for the future. His customers are grocery stores, and they are moving toward selling only cage-free eggs by 2025. Industrywide, that represents a $10 billion investment, he said.

"Forecasting what consumers are going to do—trying to understand what it really means to know what the consumer wants versus what the consumer might say they want, or what a special interest group might be telling the consumer what they want—becomes harder and harder all the time," Krouse said.

If you get it right, you survive and move on to the next generation, Krouse said. If you don't, you become one of the many farms or businesses that gets consolidated with someone else.

In addition to having changing preferences, a growing number of consumers also mistrust the science underpinning today's conventional food system. They view with skepticism the research that affirms the safety of genetically engineered food but often give more weight to their own opinions and what's said on social media.

One panelist, Sonia Nofziger Dasgupta, vice president of commercial strategy for EnviroKure, and a native of Goshen and a Purdue University graduate, said that having good science isn't enough. You have to listen to consumers' perspective and address their fears.

"Every person in agriculture needs to be an advocate for what's going on," she said, adding that food is a very emotional issue for some people.

EnviroKure specializes in the extraction of nutrients and microbes from animal manure, specifically egg-laying manure. The company transforms these nutrients and microbes into biologic amendments and organic bio-fertilizers, boosting soil and plant health. But perhaps the biggest selling point to consumers, who care not only about the food itself but also how it is produced, is that the company's nutrient extraction process decreases the environmental impact of large-scale animal agriculture.

"The consumers are really driving the desire from the food companies to have more sustainable production," she said. "We can help reduce the synthetic crop inputs that are needed and increase the sustainability while also improving soil health."

As the food system moves toward more earth-friendly production methods, Dasgupta said food companies will come up with more accurate definitions of sustainability, along with metrics, that can be communicated to consumers.

At the farm level, farmer decisionmaking will be driven by the incentives offered to comply with these new standards. But Dasgupta noted that, thus far, the incentives, or prices, have not caught up with the expectations of the food chain.

Robert Colangelo, founding farmer and CEO of Green Sense Farms, one of the nation's first indoor vertical farms selling lettuce and leafy greens, said traceability, transparency and freshness are important to his customers.

Looking to the future, he predicted that consumers will order much of their food from Amazon and that grocery stores will no longer offer dry goods but only bakery, fresh produce and meats. There will be a major emphasis on fresh baked goods and butchered meats.

As the name implies, one of the main focuses of this year's summit, sponsored by AgriNovus Indiana, is innovation, and the group, with Bechdol as its leader, wants everyone to know that innovation in the combined industries of agriculture, biology and science "is happening here" in the Hoosier state.

One of the shining stars of this innovation is Fair Oaks Farms, a premier agritourism destination "with the cleanest bathrooms on the interstate" and "great" ice cream, according to co-founder Sue McCloskey. Founded in 1999, Fair Oaks is a recognized leader in innovative ways to reach consumers with the story of modern agriculture. The farm also produces milk for the FairLife and CorePower brands.

As creative director of Fair Oaks Farms, Sue McCloskey said the Newton County tourism attraction currently features the Dairy Adventure, Pig Adventure, Crop Adventure and, soon, similar attractions for eggs and honeybees. There is also a farm-to-table restaurant and, soon, a dairy-themed hotel.

McCloskey noted the trend of consumers no longer living on farms and becoming disconnected from agriculture. The Fair Oaks attraction seeks to provide education to these people.

Purdue's Lusk asked McCloskey if the education is having an impact—if it's changing consumer attitudes on farrowing crates and other modern farming practices.

McCloskey responded by saying that one of her "coolest realizations" is witnessing how visitors react after touring the various farms.

"It is just absolutely a completely different mindset that people will walk away with," she said.

She added, "I think what people want the most from understanding where their food comes from, how their food is produced, is to know that there's someone behind that carton of milk, or behind that box of microgreens, or behind that carton of eggs, that has the same shared values as they do. When you can communicate that, (then) that's where you can begin the conversation."

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