August 16, 2021 at 1:20 p.m.

Dairy Experience Forum gives floor to consumers

Generation Z panel expresses support, concerns for food group

By Jennifer Coyne- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

    In the fourth annual Dairy Experience Forum, the day was all about those who consume dairy – and those who do not.
    “This event is unapologetically consumer centric to get us shaking in our boots,” Bob Lefebvre said. “We have some of the best cooperatives and processors in the world who attend this event, and when we focus on the consumer, that’s when real innovation happens.”
    Lefebvre is the vice president of agricultural affairs at Midwest Dairy.
    The Dairy Experience Forum, created by Midwest Dairy in 2018, was hosted by New England Dairy in a virtual format July 13. Kicking off the event was a focus group of Generation Z consumers, providing explanation to both their trust and skepticism for dairy.
    “We want to start off the day with raw consumer input,” Lefebvre said. “We want to hear that interesting insight.”
    The focus group was comprised of five individuals in their early 20s from across the United States – Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, New York and Texas. They began by stating how they incorporate dairy into their diets and then were asked to respond to topics about the industry, such as its environmental impact, corporate and social responsibility, and communicating with the young generation.
    Each individual consumed dairy regularly, but all had some reservations about how the foods were produced.
    “Gen Z is questioning the logic of dairy,” said focus group moderator Rosemary Sundin. “They’re looking at the alternatives, experimenting with them and questioning the processing and nutrition of dairy.”
    Sundin is the president of Orman Guidance which conducted the market research for the forum.
    Panelists expressed their hesitations to consume dairy not fully knowing the environmental benefits of how milk is produced. And while they may associate dairy and the environment negatively, they also could not imagine a world in which dairy was not a part of consumers’ food choices.
    “I’ve seen on social media that dairy is more harmful than plant-based alternatives, but you can’t take dairy away forever,” said panelist Brian of Texas. “Its impact is not as harmful as other parts of our nation where we could reduce carbon emissions. There are more feasible ways to improve the environment.”
    Sundin spoke of Brian’s comment following the panel discussion.
    “Gen Z desires more transparency,” she said. “There are two notions at odds with them, that dairy farming is not great but dairy products are great, and trying to reconcile those two things.”
    This generation also has a desire to hear from third parties about the goodness of dairy, such as social media influencers on Instagram and TikTok.
    Many of the panelists said they receive their information about farming practices and food production through social media. And while those media outlets provide an array of information, one panelist commented on the sources’ potential prejudices in regards to dairy’s sustainability efforts.
    “Usually, we’re seeing negative connotations because of social media algorithms,” said Bernice of New York City. “Inherently, dairy is perceived a little worse. But, there’s no alternative that is going to be 100% better. Dairy should stress that and the underlying benefits of that.”
     Brian agreed.
    “There’s a huge audience in Gen Z to reach,” he said. “Use advertising campaigns on social media to talk about the environment. You’ll have to pump money into it at first, but then it spreads like wildfire and it works so well.”
    In general, this generation wants to protect the world’s valuable food source, and they are willing to make compromises to reduce the environmental impact, Sundin reported.
    “They want to take responsibility for their part,” she said.
    The panelists’ comments were not surprising for Lefebvre as he and his coworkers have spent years understanding this growing consumer group.
    “Their skepticism may be disheartening, but they’re intelligent and they can get access to knowledge which is good,” Lefebvre said. “We have to bridge that gap and meet them where they’re at. It’s a big, heavy task, but once you have them, they’re going to engage.”
    With insight from the panel, Midwest Dairy will create ideas to share the industry’s messages, focusing on who should share those messages and which are most important for consumers to hear.
    To date, the organization is already partnering with social media influencers, bloggers and even science museums to show how dairy is sustainably and responsibly produced.
    Although the panelists stated they trust third parties more so than farmers, those on the farms have a place in those conversations, Lefebvre said.
    “From an environmental standpoint, there are others who have more weight than a farmer. But in terms of animal care and other things such as caring for the land, the farmers’ voice is respectable,” Lefebvre said. “Every day, farmers are busting their behinds, taking care of animals and natural resources. They should be loud and proud, sharing that every opportunity they have.”        
    In its infancy, the Dairy Experience Forum was an idea to gather farmer leaders and hear from consumers in the Midwest. Four years later, the event holds that same principal but with further reach across the nation.
    “The ideation and networking that moves from that is transformational,” Lefebvre said. “Events like this show us that we have to continue to skate to where the puck is going to be. We have to get to the consumers before they realize they are there.”


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