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Research shows consumers trust farmers

MITCHELL, S.D. — Most consumers are now several generations removed from the farm, and for the last 40 years that has led to a continual erosion of trust in farmers. As a result, farmers and farm groups have been focusing their efforts on bridging that gap with the consumer. The latest research from the Center for Food Integrity has some good news for farmers in that area.

Donna Moenning with CFI says a majority of consumers trust farmers when it comes to their food supply. She shared research results with farmers, as well as how to best engage with consumers, at the Developing Consumer Trust Workshops in Mitchell and Huron, S.D., on Feb. 6-7. The sessions were hosted by the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council as part of their Hungry for Truth Campaign.

Moenning says while CFI's findings are favorable for farmers, that didn't extend into the rest of the food chain.

"The trust in federal government, state government, food companies is not as high as it is for farmers," she says.

At the same time, consumers hold farmers responsible for the food supply, and she says that is a good thing.

"Consumers hold you responsible and they also trust you," Moenning says. "That's where farmers are at and it's a good place to be."

CFI research also indicates consumers are interested in knowing more about farming and food production.

"The most recent research from the Center for Food Integrity shows that 65 percent of consumers want more information about the food that they consume," says Moenning. "They want to know is their food healthy? Is it safe? Can I purchase healthy affordable food?"

She says that means secrecy is no longer an option for farmers.

"We need to be transparent about what we're doing. We need to answer questions, we need to listen to consumers and really provide meaningful answers to what they're seeking," she says.

To capitalize on this research Moenning provided training to farmers on how to build a connection with consumers in person and on social media. She says it can't be done by answering their questions with scientific data.

"Until we trust someone, then we'll look to their information. How do you build trust? Shared values is a piece of that," Moenning says.

She says food is personal, so farmers need to connect with consumers one-on-one first.

Dawn Scheier understands that. She is a grain producer from Salem, S.D., and serves as a director on the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. She has been through several training sessions on engaging with consumers and continues to learn.

"We're supposed to listen to the consumer and ask questions to make sure we are understanding what the consumer is asking, and at the end we want to let them know that we share the same value as the consumer," she says. Those shared values commonly revolve around providing a safe and affordable food supply for their family, which both consumers and farmers strive for.

Canistota pork producer Karen Hofer doesn't take that consumer trust for granted, and that's why she wanted to learn how to tell her story to consumers. She says it is important to listen to the consumer and share her desire to produce safe food for the consumer and her family.

"We want to take care of our animals so that we have a healthy, safe product in the grocery stores for them to buy," she says.

Baltic grain and cattle producer Jared Questad was surprised to find the science he had always relied on to talk to consumers wasn't the best approach, so the workshop was very helpful for him.

"If some of us can be the connection there to the farmer and consumer, we might be able to jump the gap and help them understand what we're really doing with these new technologies," he says.

Moenning says many of the same food topics are still trending with consumers.

"We continue to see interest and concern over things like antibiotic use, crop protection products, water quality, sustainability," she says.

However, she says farmers are making end roads in changing consumer perceptions and skepticism about agriculture, so at least the trend is moving in the right direction.

Sheier says it takes time to change consumer misconceptions and that's why their Hungry for Truth initiative and workshops like this are so important.

"The training is important so they can go out and tell their story and answer questions." she says.

Sheier says it is also imperative for the future of farmers to change the disconnect the public has with agriculture.

"It's really important so we can keep on farming. It's to let farmers tell their story and for consumers to understand what we're doing, so we have that freedom to do that," she says.