By Matt Reese
The after-lunch speaker for the Ohio Pork Congress was Damian Mason who grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana and now lives half the year on the home farm and half the year in Arizona. He makes a living speaking, writing, and advising about the challenges and opportunities resulting from our culture’s growing gap between consumer and producer.
Though he had dreams of going into a career in agronomy, the ag economy in 1992 had other plans for Mason. He eventually found himself selling light fixtures in California. While living there, he won a costume contest one Halloween while dressed as Bill Clinton. This prompted an unusual transition to a career in comedy, making appearances around the country (including Ohio) as President Clinton.
“One thing comedy taught me was the reality that we all work for an audience. We have forever been stuck in this thing in agriculture where we say, ‘Well you know what? If you ate today thank a farmer.’ Well that was neat 100 years ago when scarcity ruled the world. Right now we are in tremendous surplus and we have been in surplus for a long time. There is plenty of supply. We have to think about our audience in agriculture. They are not scarcity driven anymore because of the surplus we have. We get so caught up in production we sometimes forget to look at it from the consumers’ perspective,” Mason said. “We always say in ag that we have to educate the consumer. That used to mean that we tell them why we hold these calves down and cut their horns off. Sometimes the consumer does not want to know that regardless of how much we educate them. In an era we have in the U.S. with such opulence and such a well-fed populace, the consumer doesn’t care whether they are educated or not.”
Mason suggests that those in agriculture gain a more accurate perspective by considering their cell phones.
“I use a smart phone every day. It makes my life better. I have no idea how it works. I have no idea how it was made. I don’t know where it was made. And you know what? I don’t care. The person in China who assembled this phone — I don’t know their story. That is our consumer when it comes to food,” Mason said. “We keep wanting to tell people how we produce their food. Your story is neat for a second, but if your story doesn’t do something for the consumer, they don’t care. That is a reality we have to start thinking about. How we do what we do is a little bit interesting to some, but to many, they just want to know if it is humanely-raised, it is good for them, that it didn’t exploit children — that is about all we really need to communicate.”
Many consumers are looking to their food purchase decisions to offer value to them beyond a meal.
“If I am in Huntington, Indiana and I ask someone if they are going to buy that organic milk, the average consumer would say, ‘No it’s not worth it.’ If I am in Paradise Valley, Arizona around my rich neighbor friends and I ask if they are going to buy organic milk they say, ‘Well of course I am, because it is not worth it not to.’ One is saying I can’t justify $3 more per gallon of milk. The other group is saying I can’t not justify spending the extra $3 because I want my neighbors to think I am a good mom,” Mason said. “We think like ag people. We think other consumers think like us. I have heard about cheap food forever. We have this idea in ag that it is all about cheap food. There is clearly a huge segment of the consumer base that is not driven only by that. We have seen that Millennials will put their money where their mouth is and they will spend more money for a product if they believe it meets their social consciousness objectives. I think the companies we sell through will start forcing that upon us. I am afraid that is coming.” There has never been a successful comedian who does not have a firm grasp on the nuances of what their audience demands. Mason suggests the results for an agriculturist who does not do the same could be no laughing matter.