As owner of a free-range egg operation, Kate Mason is passionate about connecting with consumers. Kate had always thought the key to engagement lay in educating the consumer, but she had a reality check not long after departing her Kojonup farm on her scholarship.
“In one of my first meetings during my individual studies, I was talking to an ag consultant in Canada and he said to me ‘forget about it, you’ll never educate the consumer, there are too many people with a vested interest in confusing them’,” Kate recalls.
It was that meeting that made Kate actually analyse how agriculture goes about trying to educate consumers, and she quickly realised a different strategy was needed.
“Sometimes I think we are actually creating this fantasy bubble where we are creating our very own sensitive consumer. What I believe we need to do is to start telling the whole story about exactly what happens on farms, and we need to see things that go wrong as an opportunity to explain exactly what happens in agriculture,” Kate explains.
Through Kate’s individual Nuffield travel she was able to visit a US enterprise having a strong impact with consumers using exactly this approach.
“Fair Oaks Dairy Farm in Indiana have 37-thousand milking cows in housed barns and they want visitors, who are of course also consumers, to see all 37-thousand of these cows and exactly what happens on that farm. They’ve actually got a birthing barn and I asked them how they select the cows that they’re using in there to have calves so they don’t have any problems and said to me ‘no, no, no that’s not what we’re doing, we want to use those problems as opportunities to explain to the consumer exactly what is happening here,” she says.
Interestingly, while Kate says animal activists are still targeting the high profile dairy operation, consumers are now standing up for the farm. In the Netherlands Kate experienced a similar transparency on farms with the Roundel system, a housing system for chickens in which they are raised with an emphasis on animal welfare and the environment.
“It’s really amazing, they’re still using everything we’re using in commercial agriculture, but the thing is they’ve put a positive spin on it and they’re explaining it all to the consumer. It’s set up in a way that is friendly for the consumer to come and have a look, and it actually gives them a positive feeling towards the product when they leave there.
Kate would like to see a similarly transparent approach for engagement between farmers and consumers, however she believes it’s the first step that will be the hardest.