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Dancin’ dairy style (makes me smile)

It is no secret that dairy prices are in the dumps, and have been for a while.

It can seem sad/frustrating/stressful/scary/challenging/daunting/hopeless, among other things. Nope, there’s not much to smile about there. But, like all challenges in life, it is how each dairy farmer or farm employee responds to the situation that can make the difference in not only the specifics of their future but also the perceptions of others who are watching.

When things are grim (no matter the details) we have a choice about how we can respond. Dairy farmers Katie Dotterer-Pyle and Jessica Peters decided to respond by dancing and encouraged others who share their first-hand dairy woes to do the same.

Dotterer-Pyle is from Cow Comfort Inn Dairy in Union Bridge, Md. and Peters is from Spruce Row Farm in Meadville, Pa. The two young ladies decided to rock out lip syncing and dancing to “Shake it off” by Taylor Swift on video.

To be truthful, videos of dancing dairy farmers don’t do much to help address the grim realities of low dairy prices, but they also don’t do nothing. Yes, videos of dancing dairy farmers certainly do something, but what?

For one, I think the dancing videos make dairy farmers very human — a plight everyone reading this (or watching dancing dairy farmer videos) shares. In general, when it comes to their food, consumers tend to have more trust when dealing with their fellow humans.

In the view of consumers in a recent survey, food companies and federal regulatory agencies are held responsible for ensuring the health and safety of food but there are trust issues with those entities, according to new research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). There is a dangerous trust problem with food in this country that leads to increased public skepticism and ultimately more (and often baseless) regulation.

“If you’re held responsible and trusted for ensuring safe and healthy food, you are seen as a credible source,” said Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI. “However, if you’re held responsible but not trusted, that’s a dangerous disconnect that can’t be ignored.”

Federal regulatory agencies are held most responsible for ensuring safe food, following by food companies, according to the survey. And, as it turns out, federal agencies and food companies do not dance. Dotterer-Pyle and Peters have definitively proven, though, that dairy farmers do.

And when it comes to trust, federal regulatory agencies rank eighth and food companies rank last on a list of 11 choices.

“The potential fallout is serious and we’re already witnessing consequences in the food system as public interest in food production and processing grows,” Arnot said. “A lack of trust can result in increased pressure for additional oversight and regulations, rejection of products or information, and consumers seeking alternate, and perhaps unreliable, information sources.”

Farmers fared better in the survey, ranking third in both responsibility and trust on the issue of ensuring safe food. Over the last 10 years CFI research has consistently shown that consumers trust farmers.

“The good standing of farmers presents a golden opportunity for farmers to share their stories, invite consumer questions and help build trust,” he said.

Rankings for responsibility and trust regarding healthy food were similar. Segmenting by influencer audiences, including moms, millennials, foodies and early adopters, CFI’s research surveyed U.S. consumers on more than 50 topics including most important issues, trusted sources, purchasing behaviors, pressures impacting food choices, and attitudes on farming and food manufacturing.

The CFI research revealed additional trust gaps when it comes to the environment, animal care and food manufacturing. Eighty percent moderately or strongly agree that they are more concerned about global warming/climate change than they were a year ago. However, only 30% strongly agree that farmers are taking good care of the environment.

While 55% strongly agree that if farm animals are treated decently and humanely, they have no problem consuming meat milk and eggs, only 25% believe U.S. meat is derived from humanely treated animals. One would have no choice but to assume dancing farmers are more likely to be kind to their animals, right?

Two out of three consumers (64%) hold a positive impression of agriculture, while below half (44%) hold a positive impression of food manufacturing. A majority — around two in three — want to know more about both.

“I am often asked why consumers have a certain, often inaccurate, impression of the food system,” said Roxi Beck, director at CFI. “My response is simple: because farmers and food companies haven’t engaged consumers in a way that addresses their underlying concerns.

“The food system is making great strides toward transparency and responsiveness, which is tremendous, but there is more work to be done. It starts with identifying the drivers of concern, versus providing factual information to address the questions asked.”

CFI’s research re-emphasizes that the need for effective engagement to earn trust goes beyond simply providing consumers with information.

“Consumers want to know that farmers and food companies share their values, so simply providing facts or information isn’t enough,” Beck said. “Meaningful engagement can be a game-changer. For example, I’ve guided dozens of on-site tours of farms and food companies and the ‘ah-ha’ moments are often dramatic when consumers see and hear for themselves how food is produced. This is because they’ve made a personal connection with the individual expert, which allows the conversation to move forward.”

Transparency is a powerful trust-building tool, she said, and can be achieved in many ways, “ranging from photos and videos to blogs that invite questions. Today’s trust gaps can be closed and CFI is committed to helping the food system do just that.”

Do videos of goofy dairy farmers dancing in their barns help with this endeavor? I have no way of knowing for sure, but I do know I smile when I see one of those videos. And smiling in response to an occasional muck boot do-see-do at least seems like a pretty good place to start. Maybe it will make some dairy farmers smile too.

(And in case you don’t remember, I have done some dairy dancing’ of my own). 

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