Today my husband and I ate a typical meal for our family during this time of year. We had ground beef, potatoes, onions, peppers, coleslaw, apple sauce for dessert and a cold, very fresh glass of milk to wash it all down. Everything on our plates was produced locally. The milk was taken from our tank in the last 48 hours and pasteurized by me. The beef was from a freemartin we raised; and the veggies were from ours or other’s gardens. The meal was simple and delicious.
    This is the way we are often able to eat. It is how we were taught to eat by key influencers like family and the USDA Food Pyramid, and especially by mothers who learned the ins and outs of food growing, preserving and preparing through 4-H experiences and extension home economist groups. Food knowledge was ingrained into our eating habits growing up.
    Another experience I had as a child on our diversified farm was being part of the egg production and retail egg route that resulted from 2,000 laying hens. My parents had a typical farm for the time of a dairy herd, hogs and chickens. The chickens were the most labor intensive. Our whole family got involved in gathering, cleaning, candling and packing the eggs.
    On Wednesdays, my father would pack a Chevy van full of several cases of eggs and head to St. Paul, about 25 miles from our farm. My parents would deliver eggs to our regular customers in homes, offices, the State Capitol and even a highrise apartment for the elderly. In the summer, I was the helper on the route. What stands out the most to me from this experience is that people would always say, “I love your eggs. They are so fresh and tasty.” I do not remember any complaints about the price.
    Our egg customers were having farm-to-table food delivered by their farmer before it was invented. Today, I enjoy controlling what we put on our plates as a family. Can we provide the customers we market our milk and dairy foods this kind of choice? The answer is multi-faceted, but I think one part of the answer is to realize people are striving for this type of control over what they put on their plates, but they have a lot of uncertainty about their food.
    Food trends are changing. I will outline some key ideas shared by speakers at the Dairy Experience Forum hosted by ADA of the Midwest last July in Bloomington, Minn.
    Many people would like the nutritional benefits and what was involved in producing the food item listed clearly on packaging so they can decide if their desires and values are met. Yet, in contrast, some busy consumers want a few main nutrients front and center on their food label.
    The sources of who people trust about food and where they find that information has changed drastically. The internet, podcasts, doctors, fit friends or personal trainers and coaches are the new influencers about what we should and should not eat.
    The future of the food market will be more flexible, with online ordering and delivery to the doorstep once again. Restaurants in grocery stores and in-store food preparation classes are catching on.
    There is obviously more differentiation in today’s market with milk and yogurt sold in glass bottles (again), higher-fat dairy trending upwards and niche products thriving. There is much opportunity to research and develop new dairy foods to fit new desires. Food is becoming personalized to fit each person’s nutritional goals and tastes.
    People want to feel good about the food choices they make and want a connection to their food, including the stories of their farmer and the kind of care used in growing and harvesting the food. It has been said that the 21st century eater wants a balance of health, sustainability and experience from their food. Food is becoming entwined with a person’s identity.
    I struggle with how dairy farmers can help consumers to have this kind of control over the food they desire to eat. We do not have much say into what happens to our raw product once it leaves the farm, except for our voices through the various milk promotion boards and co-op membership.
    The on-farm processing and retailing concept like my parent’s egg route is intriguing, but is complicated to start up and capital and regulation intensive. It may be the answer for some, but surely not for a majority.
    What we can do, though, is to keep encouraging the buyers of our raw product to develop and market the kinds of foods that give today’s eaters choices for their own unique healthy plates.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.