Farmers often remark that today’s consumer is two or three generations removed from the farm, but that works both ways — the farmer is two or three generations removed from the consumer.
That makes for some misunderstanding when consumers are asking more about where their food comes from, said panellists at the recent annual meeting of the Canadian Farm Writers Federation here.
“Our issue is really less about consumers not liking what producers are doing and more about consumers having no idea what producers are doing,” said Mike von Massow, associate professor at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph.
A lack of food literacy and an onslaught of misguided information have consumers entangled in a web of confusion about who to trust and where to get accurate information about modern-day agriculture.
“This is a problem that will likely never be solved but the most important thing is to encourage dialogue with consumers. If the consumer is at least speaking to us, it gives us the opportunity to change, react, or dialogue back,” said Mike Olson, vice-president of fresh merchandising with Overwaitea Food Group, a large retail chain in B.C. and Alberta.
Panellists said many who haven’t been on a farm know little about producing food, and are prone to fear new technology. That often influences purchasing habits.
“Our problem is that instead of educating consumers, instead of spending time explaining science, they have been dumbed down, and are being moved with fear rather than an understanding of what is going on, on the farm,” said Rob Saik, CEO of Agri-Trend.
Along with little knowledge where food comes from, many consumers know little about how to prepare food. Panellists pointed out that in Canada, 40 per cent of a consumer’s food dollar is being spent outside the home.
“A number of people today don’t know how to cook because their parents don’t know how. We have got caught in this cycle of convenience,” said von Massow. “Food literacy is a huge issue. When I was a high school student in Manitoba, every student took two years of home economics and received basic food literacy skills. That is not there anymore.”
Panellists said closing the urban-rural gap must begin with compassion and common interests.
“Where consumers are is very difficult for a lot of agriculture producers to comprehend. Part of our problem is that we have a good understanding of agriculture and we understand why we have been doing things a certain way and the need for advancements,” said Dr. Terry Church, manager of Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch.
“The average consumer is two or three generations removed from the farm but that also means the average farmer is two to three generations removed from the consumer,” said von Massow. “There is maybe room for a bit of empathy in both directions.”
Panellists agreed on the need of food literacy programs in schools to offer consumers the ability to learn about food production, allowing them to form educated opinions and enable more knowledgeable purchases.
“Programs like Ag in the Classroom and Agriculture for Life are so necessary. Being able to expose kids, who are driving their parents’ buying choices, to the food value chain and where their food is coming from is huge. There is a need to expand these kinds of programs. I think that is the single most important thing we can do from a communications standpoint in this industry,” said Ray Price, co-founder of Sunterra Farms and Sunterra Market.