Don’t tell consumers ‘you’re wrong’

When most of us hear the words, “have I got a great deal for you”, we grab our wallets because experience suggests any forthcoming deal won’t be great.

Similarly, when someone says, “here’s the straight talk,” our baloney meters redline because we know the coming talk will be about as straight as a hound’s hind leg.

We in agriculture, however, often use language like “a great deal” and “straight talk” to promote cheap food and arcane farm policy. When someone outside of agriculture questions either view, we not only cling to our righteousness, we go a step further and tell them they are wrong.

In fact, it’s hard to think of any other sector in the American economy that insists on telling its customers they are wrong.

Need proof? For years, nine out of 10 consumers have asked for country-of-origin labelling on retail meat and poultry sold in the U.S.

“Wrong” our hog and cattle groups declare. “What’s best for our meatpackers — global sourcing and no labelling — is what’s best for you. Besides, COOL is illegal under the trading rules we helped write.”

Little wonder “trade” took a beating in 2016 election campaigns; the straight talk used to sell these great deals was neither straight nor great.

The latest example of agriculture’s righteousness comes courtesy of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), an ag advocacy group funded by farm and commodity organizations and agribusiness.

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In late October, USFRA began a “straight talk” campaign to counter yogurt maker Dannon’s effort to source its inputs, mostly milk, from farmers who choose to follow the company’s new rules on animal welfare and “other practices right down to the dirt.”

Dannon, the American subsidiary of the French food giant Danone, made no bones about its motives in initiating its sustainable milk program last April. It hoped “to tap into the public’s growing concern about the source of its food,” noted the New York Times.

And, of course, make money doing it — just “as companies including Nestle and General Mills … and Unilever” had done earlier, added the Times. But USFRA did not begin “straight talk” campaigns against those food giants.

Dannon, however, crossed an unseen line, explained the online ag news service DTN Oct. 27, when it advocated that its milk-supplying farmers “commit to sourcing only non-GMO feed for dairy cattle producing milk for three (Dannon)yogurt product lines.”

That step, Randy Mooney, a Missouri dairy farmer and chair of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), told DTN, was the “tipping point.”

(NMPF, like Dairy Farmers of America, Dannon’s previous milk supplier, are both members of USFRA.)

The fight, which Dannon said it welcomed, is not about genetically modified organisms. Instead, it’s about the word “sustainable.” Dannon has its own definition to fit its own marketing plan, it says, that “promotes simplicity and purity of products.”

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USFRA, too, has a definition of sustainable, noted DTN, and it includes “biotechnology and practices that should define sustainable agriculture.”

Moreover, USFRA explains, its Dannon campaign is the beginning of a new willingness to “publicly call out food companies that criticize food produced with genetically modified organisms.”

That should keep the hired hands at USFRA busy for years because “calling out” food companies that ask farmers and ranchers to deliver what the marketplace demands will be as unending as it will be unsuccessful.

The companies, after all, don’t make the market; they follow the market. That’s the way the market works. That’s, in fact, the way it has always worked.

What doesn’t work — what’s never worked — is telling your customer they’re wrong.

“Show me someone who says the market’s wrong,” a friend once mused, “and I’ll show you someone who’s on the wrong side of the market.”

Exactly. The market is your partner, not your enemy.

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Alan Guebert is an agricultural columnist based in Illinois.

  • Dayton

    “The buyer is always right” even if you think they are wrong. “You can lead a horse to water” is another saying that holds true to this day. Just some farmers are still believing what they hear from those who profit most.

  • Harold

    I know i’m being deceived when sentences do not contain, position, lodial, fact. Most reporting is an abundant collection of, adverb, verb, adjective, preposition, dangling fiction, and< a conjunction to repeat.

    When one is left with a lot of negative choices to no facts, then there is no value.
    To a fifth best, there can only be a sixth, and so forth.

    To Alan's friend, I would conclude; "and I'll show you someone sitting on the couch". Simply, a person in want of a GM at a Ford store, both people (parties) are correct, only the location is wrong; not the market. Even in Bankruptcy, Ford remains correct and the product not needed.
    One sitting on the couch with the wallet in pocket, is the one saying that the market is wrong, and is unable to contract.
    Really, is this all "rocket science" now?

  • Jeffrey

    What it seems many people today don’t understand is that there are natural or practical limits in place, some of which cannot be overcome. Maybe because we’ve seen so many advancements in our time it is hard to accept, but there is such a thing as impossible. This issue of the market and/or food companies wanting everything tailored to their own marketing campaign, which itself seems to be a polished version of a Facebook rant, may in fact be impossible. For example, I was told in school that without synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, there would not be enough food for the worlds population, even if you distributed it evenly. About 4 or 5 billion would have to starve to death. So is the “market” right to suggest all food should be organic? Well, only if you feel every other person on earth should starve. If what the market is asking for isn’t practicable, then farmers are correct to push back.

    What is frustrating today is that people often dismiss practicality and just assume anything they ask for is possible, and if you object, they start to accuse you of working for some company’s agenda. I’m not sure you’ll win over the public with reason, because people aren’t reasonable anymore.

    • Harold

      The basis to your opinion was from what you heard in school. Did you examine for yourself, or did you just accept what you heard. The same people who are suffering hunger, are also suffering from a lack of Democracy. Was this factor included with your teacher’s speech. No connection?
      You don’t “win” reason. Of reason there is fact. You cannot reason, to that which you believe cannot be overcome.That is your personal limitations and not the limitations of others. The very technology’s you know of, are the impossible’s and impracticalities of yesterday. The limitless made the impossible, possible, and to whom none could reason.
      Perhaps you can explain from future time fiction, exactly what 4 or 5 billion are not going to starve to death because of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, in practicality, to those in fiction would have starved to death for it’s lacking..
      You want to believe in the corporate sense of humanity and wisdom, but have you questioned, why with their billions adding to trillion’s, is anyone starving now time.
      By the way, all food is organic, and only the growing procedure’s different. The organic, is modified with a foreign virus body, or edited, both by technology, or it is not.

  • old grouchy

    Have you tasted the ‘stuff’ (would very much like to use a much stronger expletive) that Danone produces? Personally I think it would make great chicken and hog food – – – for me – – – forget it. I have bought real yogurt – – – I make real yogurt – – – – their’s isn’t even a pale carbon copy of the ‘real thing’!