Ibach: Agriculture views need to merge with consumer segments
When he served as the director of agriculture for Nebraska, the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs said he was able to go home to the farm and ranch nearly every weekend. Whether it was traveling to the local co-op or a small town business during that time, Greg Ibach was always surprised how attuned small town rural Nebraska was to the issues being discussed in Lincoln. “What went on in Lincoln affected all the small towns in the rest of the state. Since going to Washington, I make it a point to remember that the decisions we make at USDA affect all the farmers and ranchers in this country,” he said.
One surprise since arriving in Washington, D.C., has been grocery shopping, Ibach told producers during the Range Beef Cow Symposium. Shopping in a grocery store in Washington, D.C., is a lot different than shopping in a grocery store in Nebraska. “One of the things that has surprised me is how (urban) consumers want to have a story attached to the food they buy. Everyplace you look, there’s people trying to differentiate themselves with the story they tell in the meat case or the vegetable aisle, or even in some of the processed goods. They are using a story that traces the food they produce back to a farm to make that connection with a consumer,” he said.
With all the conversations in urban areas about climate change, there is a firm belief in the urban sector that we are experiencing that, Ibach said. “It shapes how they approach their need to know how food is produced and the expectation that it is produced in such a way that mitigates their fear about climate change, and it mitigates their fears about sustainability, and whether or not we are doing things on our farms and ranches that are environmentally appropriate. I’m not saying they are right in having these perceptions, but we need to realize they have these perceptions, and how that impacts us,” he said
The majority of U.S. consumers believe their food is safe, but when there are recalls, it chips away at their belief in farmers and ranchers. When there is a recall for something like lettuce, it can take the FDA a year to trace it back to the source, Ibach said. “That chips away at the confidence consumers have that our food is safe.”
Consumers also hear the stories about antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance, and it raises concerns with them because they don’t understand what that means. “They don’t realize there is a difference in what we use in animals and in what we use in humans,” Ibach said.
“Looking down the road, how do we merge those two different segments? Without consumers, we don’t have a market for our product, and without farmers, we don’t have a product to eat. Both groups have trouble understanding each other,” Ibach said.
He encouraged producers to listen to consumers and try and understand what they are saying. Spend some time in an urban area grocery store. “They present things totally differently in an urban grocery store than one in Scottsbluff, Neb.,” he said.
Ibach has found that it is important how agriculture communicates with consumers. “They don’t want a heavy message. What they want to know is that as farmers, we share the same values as they have. We are all worried about our family and how we will provide for them. We are worried about continuing the family business and leaving the land in better condition than what we found it in. We all want our kids to have the same values, and be the type of people we want to hang out with,” he said.
PICK A MARKET
Ibach sees the way producers market their products changing vastly into the future. “We have different segments of consumers who are willing to spend a lot of money on food, but the vast majority here and around the world want affordable food. They want to go to the grocery store and spend a small portion of their disposable income on food,” Ibach said.
The way producers market beef is going to change as different consumer segments arise. There are boutique consumers who want traceability and all kinds of claims attached to their food. They want to know where it was every step of the way, and they are willing to pay more for that. Cattlemen who want to produce for that market will need to align with third party verification to capture any premiums attached to that.
“Do we want to be a producer who just wants to produce more pounds, and be a low cost producer and supplier for affordable beef?” Ibach asked. Those producers will need to arrange investments in capital, and align themselves with a marketing system that allows them to be efficient.
Other markets may be taking advantage of the big boom in choice and prime beef, and becoming a high quality supplier targeting high end restaurants and the export market.
“The point is, the days of not figuring out what our endpoint is, not knowing what out end goals are, what our operation is, and what our family can feasibly execute in our operation, are gone. We need to figure out how we line up with consumer segments because there are getting to be more in the marketplace. Some will fit your operation, and some won’t,” he said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.