Jerry Schmitz remembers his father poring over the daily newspaper and faithfully watching the evening news. Those were his dad’s trusted, go-to sources for accurate information.
“Whatever Walter Cronkite said was fact,” Schmitz recalls.
The Vermillion, South Dakota, farmer and South Dakota Soybean Association director knows times have changed. “Today, there are so many sources. Many people look online for information and consider what they read there as fact, whether it really is or not,” Schmitz says.
Because there are so many options, farmers recognize the increasing value of telling their stories, particularly to younger generations.
Currently the largest demographic in the U.S., millennials are those born between 1980 and 2000. There are currently more than 77 million millennials, outnumbering baby boomers. By 2020, millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce and are expected to spend about $200 billion each year according to Forbes.
Where they get their information is changing, too. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the internet and cell phones. According to Nielsen research, when asked what made their generation unique, nearly one-fourth ranked technology use highest. More than 74 percent say technology makes their lives easier. Millennials are so tied to their technology that 83 percent say they sleep with their smartphones.
Research by Harris Polls for the Webby Awards shows that 79 percent of 18–34-year-olds use their smartphones in the bathroom. Eighty-four percent of millennials polled agreed that technology has brought them closer to friends and relatives who live far away, but 72 percent believe that 10 years from now, relationships will be less authentic due to technology.
Generation Z, those born after 2000, is expected to be even more tied to and influenced by what they find online and in social media.
Transparency and Trust
Whether through virtual presence or personal contacts, trust is a key factor in determining influence. A model developed by the nonprofit Center for Food Integrity (CFI) shows that demonstrating shared values is the foundation for building trust. Research from CFI also shows that transparency increases trust. CFI says storytelling and providing consumers of all generations with concrete examples of good business practices are important. Actually showing and talking about what farmers do is key to transparency.
“Consumers really trust farmers, but they might be leery of some of our practices,” Schmitz says. “It’s important that we communicate well. The fact is, we want to know their concerns, and we want to hear from them. That is how we are going to create meaningful dialogue.”
CFI developed seven elements of transparency to build trust that can be demonstrated through actions like farm tours, speaking opportunities, social media posts or one-on-one interactions.
- Motivation: Act in a manner that is ethical and consistent with customer interests.
- Disclosure: Share all information publicly, both positive and negative.
- Stakeholder Participation: Engage those interested in your activities.
- Relevance: Share information customers deem relevant.
- Clarity: Share information that is easily understood and easily obtained.
- Credibility: Show positive and negative information that supports informed decision-making and a history of operating with integrity.
- Accuracy: Share information that is truthful, objective, reliable and complete.
Regardless of the approach, farmers like Schmitz recognize that communication with consumers is an increasingly important part of farming.
“Many farmers don’t realize how important it is that we communicate with non-farmers. They drive policy and how we communicate today will impact how we and our children will be able to farm in the future,” he says.
CFI’s 2015 consumer trust research is available at foodintegrity.org.