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New consumer research by a coalition of farm organizations confirms that Illinois consumers care about who produces their food, but are misinformed about the family farmers who really grow and raise the majority of food produced in Illinois.
Extensive research from April to July showed the Illinois farmer is still held in substantial esteem by the public. But research also showed consumers have reduced trust in modern farming techniques and profound doubts about how their food is produced.
Farm organizations in the coalition, calling themselves “Illinois Farmers,” include the Illinois Beef Association (IBA), Illinois Corn Marketing Board (ICMB), Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB), Illinois Pork Producers Association (IPPA) and Illinois Soybean Association (ISA). Their cooperative efforts were announced on Ag Day (Aug. 17) at the Illinois State Fair.
Research projects conducted on behalf of the group, supervised by Milwaukee-based agency Morgan & Myers, show a pervasive mistrust of farming practices that stems from consumer concerns about food safety and animal welfare on so-called “factory farms.”
While having trouble clearly defining “factory farms,” consumers uniformly feel that such farms dominate Illinois agriculture. In a statewide poll of more than 1,100 non-farm adults commissioned by the groups and conducted by GfK Roper, Illinois residents believe, on average, that 54 percent of Illinois farm products come from “corporate farms,” versus 46 percent from family farms.
In reality, the most recent USDA statistics show that individual family farms and partnerships dominate farming in the state, representing 94 percent of all farms.
“The American family farm should be the most trusted food-producing enterprise in the world,” said Ron Moore, ISA chairman and soybean farmer from Roseville. “But our customers think the family farm is passing from the scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. We may have larger farms with less diversity, but we are still farming together as a family, and often on the same land as previous generations.”
“We know that the best people to tell the story of today’s agriculture are the people that raise the livestock and farm the ground day in and day out,” said Jeff Beasley, Illinois Beef Association vice president.
“We know of no better place than the Illinois State Fair to announce our intentions to update and reclaim the positive image of our ways of life,” said Beasley. “We look forward to sharing the true story of farming and helping consumers get to know us in a way that they can connect with farmers and those who raise livestock.”
Seventy-one percent of consumers in the poll said they felt more positive about farming when told the facts about the percentage of family-operated farms in the state.
“Farmers care deeply about our responsibility of raising safe and healthy food,” said Brent Scholl, a farmer from Polo, and current IPPA president. “We must look for every opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with consumers and be a trusted source of information on questions about how our food is grown and raised.
“But the current misunderstanding of consumers toward farming is really quite widespread – and creates substantial damage to their trust in farms and farming,” said Scholl.
For example, two-thirds of non-farmers say they are not knowledgeable about farming practices used on Illinois farms. But two-thirds also say they are personally concerned about “lax regulations of corporate farms.” And an equal number are concerned about “the role of big business in farming.”
“We are in an era when 'Food, Inc.' and 'The Omnivore’s Dilemma' are required viewing and reading in our nation’s high schools and universities,” said Donna Jeschke, a corn farmer from Mazon, and immediate past chair of the ICMB. “Myths about food production are today’s urban legends, invading our classrooms and churches. It’s high time we in agriculture step back and consider the non-farmer, and why they’ve come to the conclusions they have.”
The research of Illinois Farmers has been used by the group to define a new “farmer’s look” at the Commodity Pavilion on the Illinois State Fair grounds. Large-scale banners show photo portraits of farm men, women and children. More consumer communication using actual farmers and their families – through social media, conventional advertising and special events – will be designed and conducted by the group in the future.
“We who farm need to change the way we relate to consumers,” said Philip Nelson, a Seneca farmer and IFB president. “We must listen to their concerns, even more than in the past, and open the gates and doors of our farms to rebuild trust in the way we really farm today.”