Ah, summer. It’s the season that brings warm days, abundant wildflowers, fresh peaches, and promotional emails from farm organizations.
It’s my fascination with marketing that keeps me on the constant lookout for others’ strategies. Often for a little humor, I’ll open emails from the Big Boys to see what angle they are working in unending attempts to generate exuberant enthusiasm for generic products.
The Fourth of July was recently their targeted occasion, and price, as usual, was in the crosshairs of the campaign: “People in Pennsylvania will pay less for their cookout this year!” The message came complete with a graph proving that a PA shopper would indeed save 74 cents on a pack of hot dogs compared to the national average, followed by step-by-step instructions explaining exactly how a farmer should use this information to promote agriculture in the state. Neat.
To the casual consumer, such a proclamation probably looks pretty good: hey, we can save a few bucks this year — cool. And farmers love to endorse the abundance of food that pours forth from modern production technologies, so passing the memo along to the dining public is quite fun to do, especially if we can work in a mention of our big tractor.
Just for a hoot, however, let’s look at the money saving agenda with a little more scrutiny. Stated another way, we’re telling people that the agricultural community works hard to create a cheap end product. Our business creates cheap food. Yeah, that’s it: Farmers are the champions of cheap. And consumers should be happy about that.
I don’t think that campaign would work well in another industry. Be honest: when you cheap out at the store and buy the inexpensive version of some widget, you don’t really believe your brand-spanking new knockoff will exceed your expectations, do you? When purchasing nearly every other consumer product, we inherently anticipate the cheapest option to be low quality and not work very well. So why do we expect anything different from our food?
Perhaps more perplexing is the reality that professional farmer organizations are the source of such public relations memos. A quick examination of the mission statements from such associations will reveal, universally, a commitment to and desire for the promotion and betterment of agriculture and the people involved in the vocation. To me, seeking to further the livelihood of a community while simultaneously advertising a race to the bottom of the price meter seems incongruous.
Alan Guebert, in his Farm and Food File, recently described a Canadian study revealing that agribusiness vacuumed up a vast majority of Canuck farm revenue — 98 percent — between 1985 and 2016. The same is largely true for modern American farmers, I suspect. Of the massive wealth that is generated by the food industry, farmers are receiving nothing but the crumbs, yet here we are taking notes on how to tell consumers to expect low prices. The information we’re studying is created and distributed by organizations often heavily supported by major players in agribusiness. Oh, the weird world we live in.
Maybe it’s time we stop “needing” cheap food. A quick mention of rising food prices immediately causes hand wringing and sighs of anxiety as shoppers proclaim that household budgets simply cannot support more expensive food, yet phone, Internet and television rates continue to rise and nobody bats an eye as they purchase a top-tech connected device for the whole family. We want entertainment, after all. And we’ll max out our paycheck on a new car because we can get one without any reliable payment history, and it’s pretty easy to shop online at night when logic has departed from our decision making process, and social adventures four nights a week really do a number on our savings. These expenditures are fine, but, darn it, don’t think about suggesting chicken breasts might break 50 cents a pound.
I’ve read that consumers will often pay more for something they want, and will often seek the lowest price for something they need. If farm organizations are to actually start doing some good for American farmers, it seems to me their membership-derived resources would be much better spent encouraging eaters to desire a higher quality product to feed their family. Use that grassroots network to change the lexicon of households: food is more valuable than unlimited data for our 12-year-old.
Given the rise of noninfectious diseases that are debilitating our population, I believe it is at least possible to assume the cheap food we’ve been cranking out and consuming, much like generic Duct Tape, is of low quality and is not working very well. If we’re ever going to stop the trend, farmers have to lead the charge by redirecting their attention from producing as much as possible to creating the highest quality possible. We must return the Cheap Food message to the sender, take matters into our own hands, and leave agribusiness out on their own to continue rallying support for something that’s not good for anyone but themselves.
Can you imagine what our landscape would look like if everyone in Pennsylvania cut their monthly cell phone bill in half and spent the difference on locally produced foods because they wanted to? Ha! That’s a world I want to live in. Maybe I’ll see you there someday.
[John-Scott farms with his family just outside of Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]