Consumer opinions matter: Row crop farmers, are you listening?

Connecting with the consumer is an important part of marketing farm commodities.

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Row crops and their growers have often seemed insulated from consumer demand, especially when compared to other agricultural products like fruits or beef. Trey Malone, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, challenged the idea that row crop growers can dismiss the perspective of their consumers on a recent episode of the MSU Extension field crops team’s “In the Weeds” podcast. As an example, Malone pointed out the impact of consumer preferences on ethanol, sugar and GMO product markets. Not only do consumers influence commodity demand, but consumers are also voters who influence regulators and policy makers.

Results from Malone’s recent study, “The Role of Collective Food Identity in Local Food Demand,” indicate that Michigan consumers may indeed lack connection with the state’s agricultural products. Consumers value local agriculture and its products more when their perception of the region’s most important food products matches the top agricultural products. In Michigan, the value of row crops to the state’s agriculture has not translated into consumer perceptions of its importance. In the study, Michigan consumers identified cherries, apples and beef as the state’s most important food products, despite the fact that Michigan’s top agricultural products are dairy products, corn and soybeans.

Malone suggested that improving this connection with consumers is critical to the success of row crop commodity markets. However, growers should engage with consumers as people who want to understand where their food comes from. He shared an experience at a young farmers’ event in which he asked the crowd, “Tell me in one word how you would describe consumers in the United States.” Their response? “One of the top words was ‘uneducated’.” Malone contends that “if our goal is to try to make some type of connection to the people that are buying our product, and maybe try to market to them, that marketing strategy isn't built on thinking your buyer is uneducated.”

According to Malone, there are plenty of opportunities for farmers to tell their story, particularly in the current food industry environment. Concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the desire of consumers to feel connected to their food. Helping consumers see the links between their food purchases and your soybean, corn or wheat fields can support the markets for your Michigan row crops.

Listen to the Michigan Field Crops channel on Apple Podcasts for a new “In the Weeds” episode. You will hear from farmers, agribusiness and MSU Extension educators. The podcast is available on Spotify, iTunes and embedded on the Field Crops website. New podcasts will be posted every week for this series.

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