Improving Farmer-Consumer Connection Subject of Ag Forum Panel

1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Maegan Crandall Central N.Y. Correspondent

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Understanding how consumers perceive agriculture was the topic of discussion Jan. 10 at the New York State Agricultural Society’s 181st Agricultural Forum.

Farmers and agricultural representatives had the opportunity to network, participate in an awards luncheon, attend an extensive tradeshow, and listen to a panel discussion on various methods to improve and understand the connection between farmer and consumer.

Panelist Meghan De Golyer Hauser, co-owner of Table Rock Farm in Castile, N.Y., offered a variety of successful suggestions — such as starting a Facebook page — to promote your business and communicate effectively with your consumers.

“Technology outreach is beneficial,” she said. “I always include a photo and video with every post. I think this is one of the key parts of it because not only do we need to put written information out about farming, but we also need that visual because people need to see what a modern milking parlor looks like, what a freestyle barn looks like, animal welfare and care, and how we harvest our crops.”

De Golyer Hauser said it takes about a half hour worth of pictures every week and about five to 10 minutes to post it on Facebook. The posts reach a variety of audiences, including neighbors, families with kids, agribusiness supporters, equipment dealers, prospective employees, and even teachers who use the photos to educate their classes on what happens on a modern dairy farm.

“It’s free except for my time and it allows for interaction with users you might not be able to reach every day,” she said. “I don’t see my farm neighbors everyday, so it allows us to interact with them. The neighbors have asked on the page about nutrient management — they feel comfortable coming to the site to ask questions.”

In addition to using technology as an outreach tool to connect with consumers, De Golyer Hauser also uses more traditional methods, such as her annual neighbor letter that reaches 90 farm neighbors, press releases, and recruitment brochures for potential employees.

“Allow plenty of time to hand-deliver the letter to the neighbors. This is my one chance to see them. I usually include a small gift such as coupons and it gives them a positive outlook for Table Rock Farm,” she said.

De Golyer Hauser makes a point of addressing new projects, introducing new employees, acknowledging important anniversaries and completed training classes, and including photos of her employees in the press releases. The informational material is not only submitted to local media, but also mailed to the mayor, bankers and landowners.

“Recruitment brochures are important because they address the farm history, philosophy, and provide interview information,” De Golyer Hauser said. “I give them to ag teachers, counselors, two- or four-year schools — anyone interested in becoming a possible employee.”

As a managing partner at bc Restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y., Ellen Leahy offered a slightly different viewpoint on consumer perception in agriculture and how she believes it is evolving.

“Fortunately there has been a movement where the consumer is more savvy and interested in what you do and what you are doing,” she said. “My consumer thinks farmers are sexy, they love what you do, they get that it’s hard work, they get that there’s passion, they get that there is concern. That wasn’t always the case like it is now.”

Leahy believes a restaurant is really an artist studio and an artist is only as good as its materials.

“Agriculture is what makes these materials, and movements in food and art is all about the materials you’re providing to these artists,” Leahy said. “My consumer actually wants to buy local food. The problem that we have — that is the most important ingredient — is time. The chef wants to be cooking, not out sourcing. He wants a consistent product delivered regularly and what my customer wants is some consistency — they want it the same every time they come in.”

While Leahy stressed the need for consistency, she also pointed out that many of her consumers have a loyalty to organic products and a need to hear farmers’ stories.

“My consumers are concerned about processing, chemicals and people. So they are concerned about the people who are making these products. They want to know who you are, where these products come from, what you do, and why are you doing it,” she said.

Lisa Tucker, owner and publisher of Edible Buffalo magazine, also stressed the need for farmers to be transparent and to share as much of their story as possible — with both the media and the consumer.

“Our primary reason for being is to tell your story. There are more and more people interested in being engaged with local farmers — if you’re a chef, if you’re a food buyer, they want a one-on-one,” Tucker said. “People want to know your stories. It really behooves you to tell us who you are, but also let the media know who you are, too.”

Tucker said making a direct connection with the consumer is essential.

“Discussing local food and knowing where your food comes from is becoming more and more a mainstream discussion. I still think there is a lot that consumers don’t know about or get confused about, but there is an interest there,” she said. “So, telling your stories and being proud of what you do and really letting people know who you are, what you are doing, and why you do it is important. People are less likely to be negative when they engage directly with farmers. They will go on to be loyal customers.”

Labeling is also a hot topic these days, Tucker said, and that the more a farmer can engage with a consumer and demystify labeling terms the better.

“Labeling and labels are a necessary evil when it comes to consumers, because it’s a way to capture information and to see what exactly they are purchasing. Just make sure you are communicating what all natural’ really means and consumers will really appreciate that,” she said.

Finally, Tucker suggested that farmers have a way for consumers on the outside to communicate with them, such as using a website to illustrate their operation.

“Nine times out 10, consumers are going to Google you and search for you online. The website can be a way to provide information to the consumer about your operation,” she said.

Rick Wright, produce and floral field specialist at Tops Markets, discussed the importance of connecting retail operations directly with farmers in an effort to connect more effectively with consumers.

“We bring the produce managers to the farms. Now the produce manager — the guy that is the first line to that customer — understands what that farmer goes through to bring that product to the store,” he said.<\c> Photos by Maegan Crandall

 

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Farmers and agricultural representatives explore how consumers perceive agriculture during the New York Agricultural Society’s 181st Agricultural Forum in Syracuse last week.

 

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Agricultural forum attendees had the opportunity to network and browse an extensive trade show.


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