The farm gate: Keeping things in or out?
Farming is hard work, and most of the time, there is no one available to pick up the slack in a farm owner’s absence. This inability to get away creates challenges for these operations as they attempt to discover ways to stay competitive in a mostly commodity-driven business. If you’re reading this and nodding along in agreement, you are certainly not alone.
Alltech’s Chief Innovation Officer Aidan Connolly recently published a blog suggesting that growth in beef demand may be at risk. He recognized low-cost competing meats, environmental concerns and fake meats as a “triple threat” and discussed modern technologies that could potentially address these concerns. He went on to say, “What about the consumer? Can we improve the product — and, thereby, improve the experience — to create more consistent flavors, cooking and dining while also meeting their questions about welfare and the environment?”
To some, these questions may seem perfectly straightforward, but to those who work day-in and day-out on their families’ operations, it may not be easy to consider the concerns of a consumer they don’t know. While that farm gate has maintained their herd, their traditions and their way of life, it may have also inadvertently kept farmers from becoming interested in who their customer ultimately is.
A 2015 article in the Journal of Extension by Gunn and Loy asked producers in Iowa what opportunities and challenges they recognized for the beef industry and the family businesses therein. They identified eight “mega issues”:
- Land access
- Farm transition
- Production efficiency
- Data management
- Animal health
As someone who makes a living as both a cattle producer and beef nutrition consultant, it is very easy for me to agree with this list. However, if you take a second look, you will realize there is something missing: a direct recognition of consumer demand.
In Connolly’s article, he evaluates eight innovative technologies within the beef industry. Just like Gunn and Loy found to be true, Connolly speculates that, while the clear majority of these technologies help address production and labor efficiencies, they lack innovation when it comes to the consumer. In only two of the cases is the consumer even addressed: blockchain and 3D printing.
For beef nutrition providers, the farm gate creates a tremendous dilemma. The research conducted in Iowa paints a clear picture of what our beef-producing clients want — to keep their animals healthy and gaining efficiently, along with finding a way for their children to someday do the same. Making the sale means meeting one or more of these customer wants, limiting our ability to move to consumer-centric products that may or may not have an immediate economic return.
One very simple example of this is the palatability component, otherwise known as tenderness. Not only is tenderness relatively easy to identify post-harvest, but it also makes superior genetics readily identifiable. While we know the consumer values tenderness, the industry has never found a way to reward beef that excels in this characteristic.
Until there is a full understanding of the value of the consumers’ wants by producers, innovation will slow in areas that build demand for our end product. In addition to understanding this value for consumers, it must subsequently be monetized to create new opportunities for the producer.
I will admit that I am slow to accept these points myself. I can’t imagine why we would need to do anything different with beef; it is as perfect as my children in my eyes — but the world is constantly changing. Competition continues to mount and opportunities for young producers are becoming scarcer. However, despite this realization, creating that link to the consumer still seems elusive.
True opportunity lies in the hands of producers who are willing to make a dramatic change, betting on the future and potentially sacrificing short-term returns. It requires that they move beyond the farm gate, or at the very least that they be willing to let new ideas come through it. This is extraordinarily challenging, especially with over a century of tradition impacting decision-making in many cases.
Allowing ideas to flow in and out of the farm gate will be critical for the long-term future of the beef business — thus securing this way of life for future generations.