Consumers have two images of farmers, and one of these images will go away, Linda Basse Wenck told attendees at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Annual Business Conference in Madison, Wis., this week. Wenck is director of corporate social responsibility for Morgan & Myers, a communications firm.

One image is a farmer who is hardworking, honest, nurturing and caring, and important to the economy. The other image is less positive, with consumers not always believing and trusting that farmers will do the right thing on their farms.

“That’s the disconnect,” Wenck says. It is rare for consumers to have two images or perceptions of one thing (like you) for long. The question is which one will they choose.

It’s your responsibility to help them make the right choice.

To move the more positive image to the forefront, Wenck urges farmers to listen to and understand consumers and their perceptions of farmers.

Citing information gleaned from the Illinois Coalition study that focused on consumer perceptions of and trust in farmers, Wenck stresses that today’s consumers are not about trade-offs, want the “real deal” and value authenticity. The Coalition also shows that trust is eroding and that “health and wellness will always win.”

The powerful consumers today, according to the survey, are moms. And, Wenck notes that moms tend to trust other moms like themselves.

“We also must remember that trust is built person to person — not person to farm,” she says. To that end, she urges farmers to engage in conversations with neighbors in the community, on a personal level.

Wenck adds that people tend to give more leeway to someone they trust and less leeway to someone they don’t trust.

Sharing additional information for the Illinois Coalition, Wenck pointed out that only about one out of three consumers say that they are somewhat knowledgeable of farming practices. Their key source of information, however, is limited to that obtained at farm markets and driving by farms.

Asked about family farms and corporate farms, Wenck said survey participants defined corporate farms as ones whose owners live in the city, operate a calculator and are involved in the business from a purely financial standpoint rather than a lifestyle or a passion. Family farms, however, were defined as being owned by those who make a living from it and love their job.

Interestingly, farm size didn’t really seem to matter to consumers.

The difference between how survey respondents viewed a corporate farm and a family farm seemed to boil down to one word: motivation.

Wenck made it clear that survey participants did not understand that family farms are often incorporated for accounting purposes, and the media often play up the incorporated aspect.

“Negative information by media impacts consumers,” she notes.

To help the audience understand consumers, Wenck says that research shows that today’s consumer values are derivatives of fear and insecurity.

“These fears and insecurities have been put there by someone,” she says. “And we’ve left a void.”

Wenck went on to explain that more consumers today are removed from the farm, with many having never visited a farm except perhaps a school visit years ago.

To help consumers understand and narrow the trust gap with farmers, Wenck suggests that those in agriculture communicate with consumers and relay information about regulations, best practices and commitment. But this communication must be a dialogue and not simply a monologue.

“Real authentic farmers are viewed as credible messengers,” she says. Other Illinois Coalition conclusions show that consumers listen to everything a farmer says through a “Do you care?” lens and that firsthand experiences trump all.

“They want to hear the reasons to trust you,” Wenck wrapped up. “It would be most powerful if the farmers in this state are equipped and prepared to have conversations.”

Wenck offers four steps to building good will and trust with consumers:

  • Prepare now.
  • Build a plan.
  • Know your resources.
  • Participate in training.

“Training programs such as PDPW’s Visible Voice will give you the skill-set you need to communicate confidently,” she says.