Cows in freestall barn
November 18, 2016

Connections Key to Sustainability Message

 |  By: Mike Opperman

As consumers demand greater transparency around the food they purchase, the need for dairy producers to employ sustainable practices is no longer an option. In many cases, it’s a necessary point of market access.

A universally accepted definition of sustainability remains elusive, but agriculture is getting closer to agreement. What has been defined are the three pillars that make up sustainable practices:

  • Social: These are practices that meet a level of social acceptance by the consuming public. There are many elements to this category, but the primary ones revolve around proper care of animals and the people who work on dairy farms. 
  • Environmental: Self explanatory, this includes proper care for the water, land and air connected to and around the farm.
  • Economic: In order for sustainable practices to be useful, they must be economically feasible. This especially includes the ability to sustain the business across generations.

Dairy farmers understand the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability. Successful, multi-generational farms have more than likely been sustainable for decades. The more difficult element is the social aspect, and that’s where connecting with consumers comes in.

“Our customers are more curious about their food,” says Kendra Levine, manager of U.S. supply chain sustainability at McDonalds. “They want to know that their food is coming from a good place.”

Providing that assurance is something dairy producers can get involved with, but it takes a personal connection. “Talking to suppliers and consumers about technology and incremental improvements is hard to do,” says Chad Frahm, senior vice president of strategy, sustainability and customer outreach with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. “But leading with shared values leads to creating a connection.”

The best way to make a connection with consumers is by inviting them to take a tour of your farm. Fair Oaks Dairy in northern Indiana hosts around 500,000 consumers each year. Sue McCloskey and her husband Mike started Fair Oaks, and have seen the benefits of consumer interaction first hand.

“Making a connection is about looking someone in the eyes and making human contact,” McCloskey says. “People are more comfortable with farming practices once they know you and realize that you’re not going to mistreat animals, dump waste or make your employees unhappy.”

Sometimes that connection comes off the farm through social media. “Our customers are more interested in sustainability practices through social media,” says Suzanne Lindsay-Walker, director of sustainability at Kroger. “As a retailer we are responsible for things we can’t necessarily control. It’s important for us to be able to use social engagement to tell our story.”

Certainly dairy producers do a better job today of telling their story than they did a decade ago. But ongoing efforts are needed to maintain consumer trust and protect market access for dairy products.