My simple answer to the question posed in the title is a resounding yes. Why? Because whether we like it or not, we’re in the business of selling a product. Any business trying to sell a product should cater to their consumers. Many of you will aggressively disagree with that statement, and I understand why. As the oldest profession, not to mention the most essential one, farmers shouldn’t have to cater to anyone. What we do is necessary for survival. That alone should make us the most important people in society. Unfortunately, as we all know, it hasn’t. And I think it’s because, years ago, we stopped catering to consumers.
Maybe “catering” is the wrong word to use, but in my opinion, it’s become so much more than what the phrase implies. When I say that we should cater to consumers, I’m not saying that we should roll over and give in to their every demand. But really, some of their demands aren’t that unreasonable.
The one that stands out in my head is the FARM program. Consumers made it clear that they wanted to know that their food was coming from animals being treated fairly, so the FARM program was born. Honestly, as a dairy farmer who has gone through both the FARM program and the Dean Foods equivalent, I don’t understand what’s so bad about it. I get it, some of the phrasing in the protocols is not practical. Between you and me, I haven’t stopped swearing at my cows. And every time one of them steps on my foot, I will kick her leg until she moves it. But overall, if you’re doing everything right, it mostly amounts to nothing more than a lot of paperwork. If it makes consumers feel better about the product they’re buying while possibly saving a participating farmer from a media or animal rights attack someday, I’m all for it.
But aside from that, the definition of the phrase has changed for me. I don’t think of catering to consumers as simply giving in to their demands; I think of it as assuaging their fears. If we had “catered to consumers” 20 years ago and shown them how and why we farm, maybe we wouldn’t be forced to give up or change some of our practices now. We can no longer use BST because of consumer concern. If we had taken the time to explain what it was and how we used it when it first came out, maybe that wouldn’t be the case. If we had given more farm tours or spent more time talking to consumers about how we take care of our cows, maybe the FARM program wouldn’t have to exist.
We didn’t see any of this coming 50 years ago. We never anticipated the lack of experience or how little of a connection millennials and younger generations would have with agriculture, and it led us here. Catering to consumers doesn’t mean just giving in to their demands. It means being transparent and, ultimately, guiding them to better understand their demands. We didn’t do that from the beginning and are essentially being forced to over-correct now.
The bottom line is still that we produce a product. Without someone to buy that product, we can’t afford to continue farming. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: no consumers means no farms.
The author dairies in partnership with her parents and brother at Spruce Row Farm in Pennsylvania. Jessica is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, and since 2015, she has been active in promoting dairy in her local community. You can find her and her 250 Jersey cows on Facebook at Spruce Row Dairy or on Instagram at @seejessfarm.