Viewpoint

Supply, demand and relevance

Written by Ernie Verslues on .

While it might not be explicitly mentioned in mission statements, every business has a core purpose. It seeks to remain relevant and useful to its customers.

All of us in agriculture will stay relevant by meeting demand. For you as farmers, it means providing food, fuel and fiber to consumers. For MFA that means providing member-owners value through the cooperative’s products and services.

This doesn’t happen by accident. At MFA, we know that to deliver what is in our membership’s best interest, we need to interact directly with our farmer-owners.

We recently conducted MFA’s annual meeting. That’s one way we hear from members. In addition, we have delegate meetings each spring and local advisory meetings through­out the year. MFA hosts grower meetings across its territory, and, of course, there is day-to-day interac­tion from our sales and technical staff in the store and on the farm.

For everyone in agriculture, it’s going to take all the communication, knowledge and management skill we can muster to negotiate the changes that keep rolling onto the scene.

When I survey the agricultural landscape, I see five common themes of change: economics, trade, regu­lations, innovation and advancing technology.

I don’t claim to be particularly insightful in listing these. They are perennial challenges. Each puts pres­sure on our ability to remain relevant and useful to consumers.

There is an additional challenge we need to consider—consumer choice. In some ways, this challenge might be one of the most difficult for agriculture to address.

Consumer choice is a powerful voice in the food chain. Think about the kind of messaging the majority of food consumers hear. Consumers consistently are told that certain qualities make food better. You know the list: organic, antibiotic-free, free-range, locally grown, non-GMO. Add in increasing stipulations for livestock care and technological shifts like cultured meat. You can see that there is plenty of disruptive change in the marketplace.

Many influential food retailers se­lect suppliers based on some, if not all, of these qualities—influencers like Walmart, Campbell’s, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s. These companies have the power to push disruption down the food chain.

As an industry, agriculture needs to do a better job of telling its story to both consumers and regulators. Our story helps determine our des­tiny. We are thankful for the voices from commodity groups and Farm Bureau. MFA is active in this arena, too. And we are part of Missouri Farmers Care, an amalgamation of ag groups dedicated to telling ag’s story.

From my perspective, producers need to be part of the conversation as well. We’ve been given the tools. We have Facebook. We have Twitter and other places in the digital world to tell our story.

We need to tell our story because our story makes us more relevant. Your Thanksgiving turkey is an example. I doubt many people who put a turkey on the table knew where it was raised. Some did, however. On a small percentage of birds sold, a QR code on the packaging traced the turkey directly to the farm. Cargill used blockchain technology to track the product from farm to retail. Consumers who wanted to know more about their turkey scanned the code and found information about the methods used to raise it, the farm where it was raised and the farmers who raised it.

Why do this? Because food retail­ers intend to remain relevant to their customers. A 2014 study told turkey retailers that 44 percent of their con­sumers think it is important to be transparent in production practices. In 2016, a study told retailers that 73 percent of consumers feel positive about companies that are transparent about where and how their products are made, grown or raised. And crit­ically, more than half of consumers consider farmers the most trusted sources on food-related issues. Read that last sentence again.

Could beef be far behind? What about corn, beans and wheat? For a long time, commodities seemed far removed from consumer-level traceability. But change happens. Wrangler has a pilot project to source a line of blue jeans to a single farm known for its sustainability practices. And in the spring of 2018, in conjunction with FFA and NRCS, the apparel company held its second annual soil conference.

Agriculture is a changing business. Relevance takes work. Get ready

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