Increased trust will reap rewards

The following are just a few quick thoughts that came about from a Twitter conversation I had with an East-Coast rancher. Some of them are thoughts I’ve had that I believe are closely related. You are encouraged to comment on any one or all of these in the comments section.

When and where did the word “profit” become a dirty word? Let’s narrow the focus of the question so that only the American farmer and rancher can be clearly seen.

Is the answer as simple as the fact that there are those who politically favor redistribution and other forms of governance that are the antithesis of capitalism? Or, is there more to it than that?

Why does it seem that American farmers and ranchers are forced to be so defensive when it comes to their profits, but corporate America (the “Occupy” movement’s arguments aside) is not only allowed, but is encouraged to turn as large a profit as possible? What’s wrong with farmers and ranchers making a profit? Don’t they have families to feed, clothe and care for as well?

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I’ve been somewhat critical of what I view as a misdirection of focus in how the various commodities groups in American agriculture target their marketing and promotions efforts.

Take for instance the “Happy Cow” ads that were popular about a decade ago. Some folks even in the dairy industry quietly winced at the ads that portrayed talking dairy cows enjoying life on lush, green hillsides. Such is certainly not the normal living conditions of dairy cows throughout much of the United States; in most instances dairy cows are confined to operations where the only vegetation is that which was planted in front of the dairy barn.

While these and the “Got Milk” ads were popular for a time, what was their purpose? Was the purpose of the ads to give people something to talk about around the water cooler at work, or were they, as one might expect if they’re being forced to pay into a check-off program to promote that particular industry, geared towards selling more milk? After all, if you sit long enough in a dairy industry meeting, you’ll quickly discover that dairy farmers consistently produce more milk than the market seems capable of consuming, which is commonly blamed for the unprofitability of the dairy industry.

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This brings up a larger issue: What are the various agricultural commodities groups in America doing to sell more (you name it)? After all, when you look at the soft drink and sports drink commercials, those folks are focused like a laser on selling more of their product. As an educated outsider looking in, it appears to me that much of production agriculture is focused solely (much to their demise) on producing as much of a raw product as possible with little attention being paid on just how much of a consumer demand there is for the product. At least that would seem to be the case when you consider how many of these producers claim to be producing their commodities at a financial loss.

I have to hand it to some groups, such as the California Almond Board. As a marketing order, the board has as its mission to sell every almond produced in California. Since I was first exposed to the almond board a little more than 10 years ago they’ve managed to increase the global demand for almonds by more than 100% while working to make the production of almonds a profitable enterprise for California almond farmers.

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As a final note, American agriculture might do well to learn a lesson or two from its antagonists when it comes to public relations. I’m not necessarily talking about the messages or their tone, but in their willingness to spend the money necessary and hire the right people able to promote agriculture.

Take a look, for instance, at the Sierra Club and what it does to promote the organization and its values. It can’t be cheap to publish the books and calendars, and maintain the colorful and informative website they have.

Rather than merely assuming that consumers will always be there (yes, we do need to eat, and as such Americans will buy food), it’s nevertheless incumbent upon agriculture to do everything possible to actively promote what it does to produce safe, nutritious and desirable commodities. And if that means delving into the touchy subjects of GMO’s and why some animals are injected with specific substances and why pesticides are an important part of crop management, then so be it. Agriculture needs to get over its fears of being mislabeled and take the proverbial bull by the horns and chart its own course and message. It’s either that or continue to play defense when the antagonists say what they will about production agriculture, which many of us know hasn’t worked well for American agriculture.

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