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Fork To Farm: How Shifting Behaviors Impact Farmers

“Farm to fork” is usually the path we use to describe the food system. Ideas and influence, however, often move in the opposite direction.

In the “fork to farm” scenario, the choices people make about what to put on their plates affects those who produce and process food. This process is complex and not easy to predict as consumer purchasing intent and their actual purchasing behavior often are misaligned.

How to crack that code on the difference between what consumers say they’re going to do and what they actually do is a question I’ve received throughout my career. There are countless shifts that take place on an annual basis including changes in product variety, price, convenience and information – to name a few. Layer in COVID-19 and we see new behaviors, attitudes and habits unfolding.

What’s on the horizon and how should farmers respond?

Pandemic Impact

This year, without a doubt, has been extraordinary. When COVID-19 shut down restaurant dining and inspired a wave of home cooking, every link of the food chain has been impacted. Farmers, especially livestock, poultry and dairy producers, were hit hard by the sudden disruption in the markets.

As this disease continues to stay with us, some of the changes in shopping and dining habits are expected to remain, as well. A few things we should be on the watch for:

  • A sustained increase in online grocery shopping
  • Consumption of plant-based foods, not only because of curiosity and availability, but because of preference
  • Scrutiny for how food is produced, processed and packaged – in particular, “mass produced” food
  • Decreases in in-person dining given cooler temps and increases in infection cases
  • Processing plant operational disruption causing interference with consistent food supply
  • Decreasing number of SKUs/variety of food products at retail

While most of these things would be considered consumer issues, they will eventually impact those who produce food, some to a greater extent than others.

Responding to the Pressure

Consumers ask many questions of branded food companies, restaurants and grocery stores at which they shop. As pressure from consumers increases, food companies turn to agriculture through associations, organizations and influencers for engagement and even change. This is part of the work The Center for Food Integrity facilitates for our members – to ensure food system decision makers understand more about why the segments operate in the way they do, and to convey the tradeoff implications for decisions they’re considering.

The best thing farmers can do is truly listen to what consumers are saying – not so we can identify where consumers need education, not to simply correct their information, and certainly not to persuade them out of their deep-seated fears or positions.

Truly listening will help you understand what is driving their concerns. When you listen with the intent to understand (versus with the intent to refute their claims), you start to hear why their ideas and concerns are valid.

I’m not advocating for farms and food companies to agree with every consumer demand or idea. And I’m not advocating for consumers to agree with every decision of the food system. But I am encouraging all of us involved in food production to be willing to be educated about consumer perceptions in a way that’s consistent with the way we wish consumers were educated about food production. When that happens, I think there will be better outcomes for everyone.

The Center for Food Integrity has several resources available to help farmers learn about consumer behaviors. Our full consumer research is available to members through the member portal. Research summaries are also available. I encourage you to reach out. We’re here to help.

Roxi Beck
Consumer Engagement
The Center for Food Integrity