How to reach and teach the approximately 80 million millennials in the United States about food production practices was the subject of a recent webinar titled "Cracking the Millennial Code." Millennials, who are also referred to as Generation Y, are persons born since the early 1980s.
The two presenters on the webinar. which was sponsored by the National Pork Board, Drovers Cattle magazine and Dairy Herd Management magazine, indicated that the millennials are not set in their beliefs but are looking for information — a task and opportunity on which they believe the agriculture sector has been lagging.
"Agriculture has not done a good job of educating" consumers on its food production practices, leaving a void that detractors and activists have been aggressive and somewhat successful in trying to fill, said Angela Anderson, a food chain outreach specialist with the National Pork Board. "Agriculture is a few steps behind in attention to food."
Trying to fill some of that void is Nicole Patterson, a northern Iowa woman and Iowa State University student whose family raises hogs and grows field crops. Since September 2013, she has been writing a blog with the title farmgirlfactsoflife.com. Her site has 1,522 followers, contains 45 archives and has 246,352 hits.
People want to trust farmers, but "agriculture has been hiding under a rock for too long," Patterson said. She believes this failure sets the stage for distrust.
On her blog, Patterson has addressed such hot button topics as how hogs are raised and crops are grown; antibiotics for livestock; the branding of farms as family enterprises or industrial entities; chemical use on crops; genetically-modified organisms; animal abuse; animal welfare; and comparisons of nutrition in organic and nonorganic foods.
Through those efforts, Patterson has received a lot of negative feedback and even some personal attacks. The number of such responses has increased since her blog was noticed and then picked up by the Huffington Post, she reported.
In those cases, Patterson wants to have a dialogue with the respondents but finds that most of them do not care to do so. Noticing that viewpoints are often based on emotions rather than facts or science, she asks for the source of their beliefs or opinions.
Patterson also likes to refer to what's done on "our farm" in her responses. This includes the eating of pork from hogs raised by the family.
Regardless of the type of exchange, Patterson emphasized it is important to respond quickly to questions. For herself and other bloggers with similar interests and goals, she suggests showing one's personality, using humor, creating numbered lists, keeping postings short and simple (20 to 30 seconds for reading a message) and supplying lots of photos on such social media as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Despite Patterson's experiences, a great majority of millennials are looking for the information they need to make their own decisions, Anderson said. She warned that trying to convince them to a certain point of view based on scientific data alone is not a winning formula today.
To a question about who or what has credibility, Anderson cited one survey which indicated 84 percent of millennials have confidence in the traditional news sources; 70 percent have it with family and friends; and 54 percent have a high degree of confidence in the social media.
Patterson mentioned Dr. Oz as a person in whom millennials have confidence about food, while Anderson indicated that, within agriculture's sectors, farmers and veterinarians earn the highest degree of confidence among millennials. She said the level of trust is much lower with government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Anderson reported on the findings of three-hour research projects with millennials in Boston, Austin and San Diego. Anyone trying to reach them with a message must understand the code words, insider language, emotions, perceptions and context that lead to the formation of opinions and beliefs, the making of decisions and the undertaking of actions, she explained.
In today's social media environment, anyone can express himself or herself on any topic, Anderson noted. When the topic is food, "farmers must lead the conversation" on how foods are raised and produced, she said. "Be practical, realistic, engaging and transparent."
As a group, millennials tend to be skeptical, like to ask questions and want to do what's socially responsible, Anderson observed. With surveys showing that nearly two-thirds of millennials have some concerns about foods from animal sources, she said this indicates how important it is for the agriculture sector to address that fact.
Millennials tend to be laid back, but they are also willing to be engaged in things that draw their interest, Anderson said. "They want the whole story. They know the difference between being a detractor and having an agenda."
When it comes to buying meats, the order of preferences by millennials in making a choice is price, the cut and color, she said. The use of antibiotics in growing the animals and other factors rate lower.
Surveys also indicate that food ranks fairly low on the list of things to which millennials give a lot of attention, Anderson added. She warned, however, that they can become easy targets if the agriculture doesn't offer them a consistent message on agricultural and food production issues.
"You can never have too much transparency," Anderson commented. She does not believe a crisis situation exists with regard to views on food by millennials but adds that this subject must not be ignored because "the views of millennials will have an effect."
When using the social media to share a message, start by recognizing the views of other parties, strive for engagement with them, maintain a realistic tone and provide information from unbiased sources, Anderson advised. Don't engage in discrediting other sources, don't make any assumptions and don't provide a reason to question "your own" motives or credibility, she stressed.
Social media users like to click on video and graphics, Anderson pointed out. She also recommended using hashtags because this allows for grouping and easy retrieval of messages on a certain topic.
People wanting to learn about the topic are invited to attend an Animal Agriculture Alliance stakeholder summit held in Washington, D.C. on May 8-9.