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Opinion: Food connections increasingly important for consumers

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When consumers sit down at a restaurant, pull their cars through a drive-thru or check out at the grocery store, they select what they want to eat. They order that salad that sounds great or that steak and potato that looks fantastic. Some consumers check the calories or nutritional components, while others just want a fantastic meal.

Every consumer is unique and has their own preferences. Now, think about that business owner, entrepreneur and their own responsibility to produce that lettuce that the consumer would prefer or raise that beef that will have the right appeal. As consumer preferences change, the responsibilities of that business owner changes.

As with all other industries, farmers and ranchers must be experts in their fields and meet the needs of the consumer.

To meet those needs, producers understand that not all consumers will want the same thing or be willing to pay more for specific production methods. A recent study by Amanda Wecker, graduate student in the College of Agriculture at Missouri State University, found that each generation has different priorities it’s willing to pay more for. Wecker found consumers from the silent and baby boomer generations were less likely to spend 10% more for nongenetically modified organisms or certified organic products. At the same time, consumers ages 22-29 (the younger millennials), were more likely to spend 10% more for GMO-free and antibiotic-free products. But in all labeling situations, individuals who were conscientious of their meat decisions in their diets were willing to spend more.

Farmers and ranchers must work to fill the demands of those consumers, such as with organic production. According to the 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census, there were nearly 16,000 certified organic farms, crop and livestock, covering nearly 9 million acres. The growth in organic production comes partially from a producer’s decision to raise certified organic products, but it also comes from consumer demand for organic foods. This is crucial to their success as nearly 50% of those U.S. certified organic farms sell directly to consumers or through local food hubs and markets.

Consumers who can’t or don’t spend the premium for certified organic or organic production are still major players in the shifts in agriculture. Some consumers want to know from where their food comes from, production methods or nutritional value. The local movement is not unique to agriculture, but it takes on a different approach in marketing to consumers, through production management choices. Grass-fed beef is one example. A challenge to understanding the grass-fed beef market is that many operations use grazing strategies but do not market products as grass or forage fed. According to industry sources, grass-fed beef accounts for 3%-5% of the U.S. beef market, but the actual share is likely much higher. As that market continues to expand, there is an opportunity for local producers to change marketing strategies and connect with the grass-fed meat consumer.

Even the plant-based meat products trend has aimed to capture the producer’s attention. These burgers provide an alternative to the beef burger using plant-based proteins. Some of the proteins in these alternatives are soy, potato, peas and rice. While there are concerns about this trend impacting agriculture and worries about the consumer understanding what product they’re actually consuming, crop producers could see this alternative as diversification in demand and livestock producers can recognize that this alternative represents about 1% of U.S. meat sales, according to Nielsen. Some consumers still choose other protein avenues to avoid the more processed burger alternatives. It is important to note that according to Allied Market Research, this alternative meat sector is expected to grow in value to as much as $8.1 billion by 2026.

What trends and research tell us is that producers play an important role in meeting the food and fiber needs of the consumer. But more so, that there is a tremendous importance to a farmer or rancher in being connected to that consumer. With that connection comes the need to share knowledge about and need for those products, in both directions.

Nichole Busdieker-Jesse is an assistant professor with Missouri State University’s William H. Darr College of Agriculture. She can be reached at nbusdiekerjesse@missouristate.edu.

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