Perception trumps facts. Unfortunately, a lot of perceptions about modern agriculture are wrong, based on shoddy science and perpetuated by organizations or individuals intent on denying farmers the tools they need to improve efficiency, increase yields and provide safe, affordable food to consumers.
Perception also may encourage changing the way commodity organizations present information to potential consumers and even looking at a different demographic to find new customers.
Both of those concerns are important to peanut farmers as they try to “Survive in the Marketplace,” the theme for the opening session of the 2016 Southern Peanut Growers Conference held July 22-23 in Miramar Beach, Fla.
“How did we get to this juncture, where survey after survey shows family farmers are one of the most admired professions, but larger farmers and new scientific breakthroughs are viewed with suspicion and outright distrust?” asked Forrest Laws, director of content for Farm Press, in the conference opening address.
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Laws, a seasoned reporter, editor and leader within the Farm Press group, says agriculture faces growing negativity from the public. He says an “increasing disconnect between rural and urban,” feeds the alienation between farmer and consumer.
He also notes that those with axes to grind pay little attention to science. “As Julie Borlaug, the granddaughter of the late Norman Borlaug, has been quoted as saying, ‘We have produced a fact-resistant strain of humans.’”
That consumer pessimism about the role big agriculture and new technology plays in modern agriculture is affecting the ability of manufacturers to identify, develop and market new compounds to protect crops and livestock from pests. Laws notes that since the year 2000, the crop protection industry has been granted no new herbicide labels. Industry currently invests $350 million to get a new product on the market, and the Environmental Protection Agency now takes on average a year longer to approve new chemistry than was the case just five years ago.
And products that have been approved and used for years are now under review and could be taken off the market.
“The following list is by no means complete,” Laws says, “but it’s my attempt to recap how many different compounds are ‘endangered’ because they are under review or pending registration by EPA: Insecticides—Chlorpyrifos (Lorsban), Flubendiamide (Belt), Imidacloprid (Gaucho, other trade names), Malathion, and Sulfoxaflor (Transform). Herbicides include: Glyphosate, 2,4-D, and dicamba.
Laws relayed the findings of a study of African weed control that shows herbicide use significantly improves efficiency, allowing school-age children the opportunity to stay in school instead of performing “drudge work.” The study also shows increased yields. Production loss to weed infestation in Africa, where less than 5 percent of producers use herbicides, Laws says, ranges from 25 percent to total loss, losses that can be significantly reduced with modern technology.
These facts mean little to those with an agenda to deny modern technology’s benefits. Laws says pressure from anti-science organizations affects EPA decision-making and muddies the water for consumers.
“Environmental activist groups such as the Pesticide Action Network UK, Solidaridad in Europe, and the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Working Group and others in this country have so poisoned the well that we in production agriculture find ourselves constantly on the defensive.”
The situation would be “laughable,” he says, except that the end results are making it more difficult to develop new chemistry for crop protection and to keep the old ones.
NEW PERCEPTIONS FOR PEANUT MARKETS
Perception is a new focus for the National Peanut Board and the Southern Peanut Growers as they look for more efficient and more cost effective ways to market peanuts. They have a new target demographic, according to Ryan Lepicier, NPB senior vice president of marketing and communications, and Leslie Wagner, executive director, Southern Peanut Growers.
Lepicier and Wagner did a tag-team presentation of how the organizations are focusing new marketing and promotion efforts on millennials, young people between the ages of 18 and the early 30s.
Social media, Lepicier says, will be the driving force for the new campaign. “We have to be where they are,” he says.
The reason to focus on this age group, he says, is twofold. “The older generation already loves peanuts,” he says. And millennials are getting mixed messages. They know and like peanuts and peanut butter but they also hear reports of food allergies and see promotions for other nuts such as almonds and pistachios, both with much larger promotion budgets than the $5 million available to the NPB.
“Social media is evolving and changing,” Wagner says. "It’s changing so fast, we can’t continue doing things the same way.” Millennials, she says, are more tuned in to Twitter, SnapChat, Spotify and other options than they are Facebook.
She and Lepicier say promotion efforts of the past—print and broadcast—are now too costly and reach the wrong audience. “The most dangerous phrase we know is ‘we’ve always done it this way,’” Lepicier says.
Last January NPB created a new promotional campaign around a persona, the Peanut Vendor, to deliver regular messages about peanuts via Twitter. “Our first-year goal was to have 20,000 followers,” he says. “We’re at 14,000 (in July), so we are pleased with the start. And we have engaged 9 million people.”
“That promotion gives peanuts a voice,” Wagner adds. “It’s hard to have a voice with only a $5 million budget.”
She says the organizations also work together to leverage what they do best. “We both work in the food service sector,” she says. “We work with getting peanuts on menus. NPB works with education in restaurants and schools on food allergies, promoting education and management instead of banning peanuts.”
Lepicier says a piece of good news comes from a recent study that shows introducing children to peanuts at an early age decreases the possibility that they will develop an allergy.
Perceptions for peanut marketing is changing, Lepicier and Wagner say. They are looking for ways to change those perceptions by focusing on a new audience, providing information regarding the health attributes of peanuts and finding new vehicles to keep peanuts in the minds of consumers.
Fortunately, they have facts on their side.