It was the day before Christmas, and the family was gathered for a festive dinner when my highly-educated adult son held up an unshelled almond and said, “Is this a hazelnut?”
    Sigh. How is it possible he had never seen an unshelled almond? I explained, exasperated, that no, that was an almond, and that hazelnuts were more round and looked like an acorn.
    Times have changed. My son has probably never known anyone who has lived for any significant time without access to enough food. He has lived in a world of plentiful, safe and cheap food, full of a multitude of choices. He and his cohorts expect this. I grew up differently. Our family always had enough food, but we knew others who did not. We had choices, but most of our food was basic. Convenience food was uncommon, and the idea of considering how one’s food was raised was almost unheard of.
    My son is your current and future customer. I am not. The time of consumers who expect safe, basic food is over. As food producers, we need to face up to this reality. We may think consumers are silly, stupid or similar, but what matters is that they control the purse strings that support all of our families. What can we do?
    First, we can try to understand. Learn why they ask the questions they ask and what matters to them. Pay attention to consumer surveys. For example, a recent University of Minnesota survey showed that most people prefer group calf housing over individual calf housing. As a veterinarian, I find that challenging because individual housing is the gold standard when considering calf health. Yet, we need to understand why people think this way, and we may have to change our procedures if we cannot properly address their concerns. Ask people what they think. Dr. Conrad Spangler, staff veterinarian at Riverview Farms, suggests asking someone not connected to the dairy industry to visit your farm, walk around and respond to the question, “What do you see that you do not like?” One might do this a couple of times a year. Be prepared for surprises, and really listen to their concerns. Remember that we are all industry insiders, so different things matter to us, and things that matter to consumers might never seem important to us. For example, how one moves or temporarily stores a dead cow does not rise to the level of importance of getting the cows milked and fed every day on a dairy, but a bloated, smelly carcass in plain sight is offensive to most people not familiar with livestock farms, so we may need to figure out a better way to handle dead cows.
    Second, understand that every contact matters, and more contact is better. This means that every time someone drives by your farm counts, or sees a cow at the county fair, or sees a picture of a calf somewhere on the internet matters. Since everyone eats, everyone is a potential customer. Every contact is an opportunity. We will not get it right 100 percent of the time, but providing more positive contacts will dilute potential negative contacts that someone may have experienced. Humans are less likely to dislike someone once they have made a connection. For example, the phrase “large farm” may carry negative connotations, but once a consumer has actually met and interacted with the owner of a larger farm, they are more likely to see the farm in a positive light. Consider using social media to tell your story. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and farm websites may all seem like fluff, but companies all over the world know how important they are. Many farms offer a variety of tours today; these can be a great opportunity to make connections to your local customers. Let people know your values and why you do what you do. Customers may not agree with everything you say or do, but almost everyone will agree with something. How about bringing a calf to the grocery store parking lot a few times during dairy month next year? Most people have an innate bond to newborns of almost any species, so why not take advantage? Use the opportunity to listen and talk.
    Third, do not greenwash. According to Brett Kaysen, assistant vice president of sustainability for the Pork Checkoff, greenwashing is a marketing spin where someone falsely claims to embrace eco-friendly practices. False claims might also relate to animal welfare or employee management, so be careful not to promote something you cannot back up with proof because greenwashing destroys consumer trust. For example, a common question expressed at the Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair is, “Why do you take the calf away from the cow?” The answer to this question can be complicated, and it may not completely satisfy the questioner’s concern, but it is still the right answer to give.
    Times indeed have changed, and customers have changed. Many things that we take for granted are not understood by consumers. Likewise, they have a vastly different perspective about what we do and about the food they buy than we do. Understanding and connecting with our customers is more important than ever before.
    Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennettnvac@gmail.com with comments or questions.