Consumer-Led Agriculture

Most of us love agriculture but let’s be honest…..we’re not doing this as a community service. Agriculture is a business that sells products and services to real customers with real dollars that have real preferences. I cringe when I hear my colleagues in agriculture accusing a customer that wants to buy organic as “uneducated” or poking fun at “alternative” forms of production. Equally, I feel uneasy when I hear wild claims demonizing GMOs or “industrial agriculture”. This infighting between various forms of agriculture is counterproductive and damaging.

When it comes down to it, the verdict is ultimately up to the CONSUMER. All anyone is doing in production agriculture or agribusiness is meeting customer demand. You may not think the customer should pay money to buy organic, or GMOs, or imported apples, or whatever. But the fact is that it doesn’t matter what you think because it is the consumer that’s paying for what the consumer wants. We need to be very careful in agriculture not to lose site of the fact that it’s the consumer that’s paying our bills and gets to decide for themselves what they want.

One thing that seems to be lacking in modern agribusiness is a connection with the consumer. Like any industry, decisions by customers in agriculture are not only based on quality and price, but also how buying that product makes them feel. “Conventional” agriculture has done an outstanding job of producing an abundant, cheap, safe, and consistent food supply. This is clearly what the overwhelming majority of consumers have demanded, and in my opinion, this is what the overwhelming majority will continue to want in the future.

However, there is a small and growing minority of people who don’t resonate with the message of “cheap, consistent, abundance”. They want to feel good about knowing the source, connecting with how that product was produced, and supporting the “small” and “local” producer. They prefer this so much that they are willing to pay more for these products.  Personally, I think this is fantastic. Also, I see nothing about this that is threatening to “conventional” agriculture because the vast majority of consumers are still wanting the abundant, cheap, safe, and consistent food supply they have always wanted.

If we are going to #feedthe9 then it will take all forms of agriculture participating on the same team to meet this challenge. We as agriculturalists and agribusinesses must rise to the challenge of a growing population while respecting that they are the customer and they have preferences. And that preference may be organic or non-GMO, or it might be cheap and reliable, or it may be labeled based on country of origin or the way it was raised. The market will decide how much the customer will be willing to pay to see their preferences met. So all the criticisms directed at various forms of agriculture are useless and in fact harmful to our industry.

One thing that I think we call agree on is sustainable agriculture. No matter what form or aspect of agriculture you are involved in, we ALL want a sustainable food supply that will be around permanently. We are all vested in finding solutions to make what we do more sustainable in terms of water, soil, climate, and economics. No one form of agriculture has a monopoly on sustainability. Do we have a long way to go to meet the challenges of an exponentially growing population sustainably? YES. But in order to do this it’s going to take all of us working together, sharing perspectives, and experimenting with new ways of feeding the world.

Some will agree with this post, with the “opposing view” in mind as the one that needs to change their ways. But if you’ve ever criticized any form of agriculture you are participating in the problem and not the solution. So let’s all do our best to connect with customers and tell our story, but not by attacking someone else in the industry. The daunting challenge of feeding 9 billion people looms over all of our heads. Time wasted trying to prove to customers they are making the wrong decisions could be better spent finding and filling niches of customer demand for your business’ resources. All industry is a response to the needs of customers, and our’s is no different.

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Tim Hammerich

Tim is a strategic communications consultant, founder of AgGrad, and the host of the "Future of Agriculture" podcast. Originally from California, he is now based out of Boise, Idaho.