Fear-Based Marketing Hurts Family Farms
From the Farmer's Tractor
August 27, 2014
by guest columnist Chris Chinn
As a farmer, I pay close attention to food labels and the statements big food companies make about the products they sell. Words like local, organic, sustainable, antibiotic-free, cage-free, grain-fed, etc. all come with loaded perceptions that have a profound impact on family farms like mine.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with companies telling consumers that their food products are good, but when that effort implies that other food products are bad, that is where the issue comes into play. It is really nothing short of unjustified, fear-based food marketing. I seriously doubt that those offending companies even consider the impact those words will have on farm families like mine who choose to produce food using safe, efficient and modern methods.
Of course, it’s all about marketing, but by insinuating that there must be something wrong with modern production methods, the offending companies, in effect, are throwing my family farm under the bus.
In today’s consumer-empowered society, we all realize that choice in the marketplace is essential, but at the farm level, when choice extends to fear-based marketing and labeling, there certainly are ramifications. The demonization of efficient, modern production agriculture can actually discourage that next generation of family farmers from returning to the farm. Farming is already a capital intensive business, but added costs associated with changing how a farm operates can introduce costs that simply make that dream prohibitive.
Every farm is different and what works on one family farm may not work on another farm and that’s alright. Every family and farm is unique and that is what makes agriculture so diversified. It’s a lot like buying jeans, different styles of jeans fit every person differently and some won’t fit you at all. When farmers choose their methods of farming, they choose the style that fits their farm, their family and their market. It really is about meeting the ever expanding need for choice in the consumer marketplace. No choice, including top quality products at affordable prices, is wrong. No type of agriculture is bad.
On our farm, we work closely with our veterinarian to care for our animals and determine what health care plan will work best. Our veterinarian lays out the detailed plan and we work closely with him to implement the plan on a daily basis. We do this to keep our animals healthy and safe. When consumers began to demand leaner cuts of pork, our veterinarian guided us through the process of raising a hog with leaner meat and less body fat. The leaner hog didn’t do well outdoors in the winter so we moved our hogs indoors at the direction of our veterinarian. This enabled us to protect our animals from diseases spread by wildlife and predators. It also allowed us to protect our animals from the harsh winters and humid summers since pigs do not sweat.
Every decision we make regarding the care we give our animals is based off of the recommendation of our veterinarian. Our veterinarian recommended we house our sows (female hogs that have given birth before) in individual pens to prevent fighting and injuries to our sows. This enables us to give our sows hands-on care multiple times a day and we are able to prevent problems from occurring. Our family is committed to caring for our animals in the best possible manner. This has meant that we had to invest thousands of dollars to convert our barns from group housing to individual housing. A decision like this takes a lot of research and it takes years to pay for.
In the last few years, several companies have made commitments to only purchase pork from farms that use group housing systems. I wonder if these companies talked with a large animal veterinarian that cared for hogs on a daily basis before they made their decision? Did they fully understand housing options for hogs? Most people are three to four generations removed from a farm so it’s difficult to understand farming and ranching when you haven’t met a farmer or experienced farming first-hand. In the meantime, this development has our farm’s future hanging in the balance like a yoyo tied to the finger of a pre-teen.
When food companies implement corporate social responsibility goals they often are looking within their company to determine what is important. I doubt they consider the impact these goals will have on the very real families who raise the products they sell. To achieve these corporate social responsibility goals, farmers have to make expensive changes to their farming methods with no compensation to meet these goals.
Trust me, it is not cheaper to produce food to meet a specific goal. But, more and more farmers are expected to deliver goods with specific qualities solely to meet a company’s corporate social responsibility goals or their strategic marketing plans. Companies always strive to differentiate their products in the marketplace, and quite frankly, honesty and forthrightness is frequently shoved to the backseat. When this happens, more often than not, their fortune comes at the expense of their competitors and the farmers who supply them.
For my family farm to revert back to a group housing system it would cost us more than a million dollars and it would go against our veterinarian’s health care plan for our hogs. This change wouldn’t happen overnight, it would take years to implement and it could only happen if we convinced a bank to lend us the money. Our farm would be severely crippled and our ability to bring our kids back to the farm would be diminished.
I am not mad at the companies who have made the decision to buy pork from farms that use group housing systems. I don’t think these companies made their decision with the goal of destroying my family farm. For family farms like mine to survive into the future we are going to have to be compensated to make the costly changes being demanded by big food companies.
In baseball terms, family farms can’t be the only batters to get on base and drive in runs. Providing true choice in the marketplace is a team effort, and every member of the team must step up to the plate.
Chris Chinn raises hogs and cattle with her husband Kevin and his parents on their 400-acre farm in Clarence, Missouri.
From the Farmer’s Tractor is an editorial column written by farmers in their own words about issues that matter to them. If you are a farmer interested in sharing your views on farming and the food industry, please contact Allison@Supermarketguru.com.