As the coronavirus continues to upend industries and disrupt value chains, it has reshuffled priorities for businesses and consumers alike. By distilling our once bustling cities and formerly packed schedules to the “essential services” we need to maintain basic functions in our society, many consumers have also refocused on the essentials to our human survival. Chief among them: Our food supply.

According to a new consumer intelligence survey conducted by G&S, more than half (58%) of Americans say the coronavirus crisis has made them realize that farmers’ role in society is more critical now than they thought it was last year. In prosperous times, few people give a second thought to the abundance and reliability of our food supply in the United States. Yet in times of crisis, consumers are paying more attention to where their food comes from and expressing their concerns about food safety, affordability and availability. In fact, about a quarter (24%) of Americans now report spending more time thinking about the origins of their food.

Mounting Fears around Food

America holds deep roots in farming as an originally agrarian economy. At the time of our nation’s founding, nearly 90 percent of the population was involved in agriculture. Today, only two percent of the U.S. population is connected to the industry – and with each passing decade, we see a greater divide between rural and urban communities. The story of our how our food is cultivated, harvested, processed, produced and prepared is one that the agricultural sector has wanted to tell for a long time. And now, it seems, Americans are ready to listen, with nearly half (45%) saying that farms and ranches should communicate to the public about how they are keeping our food supply safe, according to our consumer intelligence survey.

At the same time, however, many farmers are facing their own share of pressures as they enter a critical season. During the spring, farmers across the heartland must get their crops in the ground. That requires a lot of pre-planning and some help from Mother Nature. During the growing season, they need to protect those crops from anything that could impact their yield. And, of course, in the fall, they must harvest at the right time and hope the market prices are favorable.

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For those who grow specialty crops and fresh pack fruits and vegetables, a big issue is the availability of labor to harvest the crops. Those involved in poultry and livestock are dependent on the processing plants to get their animals to market. Already squeezed by low commodity prices and labor shortages, the ag value chain must take extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of their workers during this time, which can slow the process – and, potentially, production.

Farmers Need a Voice

The pandemic has elevated the profile of the entire food supply chain. Consumers want answers, and farmers and ranchers are hard at work ensuring that Americans are fed. And through it all, mainstream media tends toward the sensational. In this environment, agribusiness has an opportunity to help set the right narrative. Here are a few things we must do:

  • Highlight your actions to address the crisis. In times of heightened awareness, focus and concern, communicate early and often with your key stakeholders. Nearly all Americans (95%) say they want to hear what companies are doing to protect both employees and customers during the coronavirus, so your message should include the safeguards you’re enacting for both your workers and your end consumers. Not only is this a mandate for large agribusiness companies; individual farmers, ranchers, retailers and their supporting associations can do the same. Find ways to reassure the supply chain and the public that you’re taking every precaution to ensure continuity of operations, and remind them that the products they love will continue to be available, high-quality and safe to consume.

  • Amplify the message. Publish the message on your company website to ensure that consumers, media, friends, family, community members and industry professionals seeking answers will see it first. Include it in your ongoing communications with your employees and customers. You can even proactively share it with your local newspaper or broadcast media to ensure a positive narrative around Agriculture and your brand.

  • Engage on social media. Don’t neglect this opportunity to connect directly with consumers and put a face to Ag and your brand. If you’re active on social media, leverage social listening to engage with your followers, offering them updates, support and reassurance. Share “myth-busting” facts to combat misperceptions about food safety and reliability. Amplify official directives from industry and national authorities to show that you’re aligned with best practices when it comes to preserving health and safety on your farm.

    This could also be the time to launch a new social media channel. Start by publishing a few messages and encouraging your existing base to follow you there. As more information emerges, post updates on your social channels and use it as a platform to answer questions. You can even give the owner or leader of the farm a personal voice, allowing them to humanize your experience and connect with other farmers as we all weather the storm together.

  • Leverage industry associations. Many farmers need a mouthpiece to bridge the gap between producer and consumer. Associations like the American Farm Bureau Federation can offer a platform to dispel misinformation and take ownership of the narrative to the American public. Reach out to your local association to share the stories about what you’re doing to protect your people, your production and your crops.

It took a pandemic for Americans to recognize the critical importance of farmers, both to our economy and to our daily lives. Our story is centuries in the making. Consumers are listening. Let’s raise our voice.

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G&S Business Communications is the #1 PR agency for agriculture as ranked by O'Dwyers.
This blog post is the second in a series about agriculture and the COVID-19 crisis.

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