Among the many forms of tribalism rife in the world is one that is particularly dangerous to farmers — the myth of farmers verses the consumer.
Consumers often don’t understand the complexities of farming, the myth goes, and they need to be better educated so that farmers can get on with business.
Like all myths, this has an element of fact, but there is a much weightier fact on the other side of the scales.
The affluent consumers that Australian farmers need on their side have more information and choice available to them than in any time in history.
If they don’t like what they learn about their food or fibre (whether what they learn is factual or “fake news”), they can choose something else. And they sometimes do.
We hear concerns that much of what consumers are being told about how their food and fibre is grown comes from activist organisations.
It is true, but on issues like free-range eggs, sow farrowing crates or mulesing, the activists have created a compelling story for their audiences. Whether we as farmers like it or not.
Confronted with such narratives, farmers can choose to resist or respond. Resistance doesn’t have a good track record, so response seems the wisest option.
As a wool producer, I’m most familiar with the issue of mulesing.
When animal welfare activists started to bring mulesing to the attention of consumers more than a decade ago, much of the wool industry bridled at being asked to change its practices.
Promises were made by the wool industry leadership, but promises driven by industry representatives, not consumers.
A few weeks ago, “very frustrated” representatives of the Italian spinning sector were telling us they were looking elsewhere for fine wool because mulesing remains the norm in Australia, not the exception.
Like many woolgrowers, we have altered our sheep management practices: we now don’t mules.
We responded early, recognising that consumer dislike of the practice wasn’t going away.
Communicating and connecting with those people across cultural boundaries is not hard, but it takes commitment, tenacity and openness.Robbie Sefton, NSW Rural Woman of the Year
That consumer asking for change is seldom completely unreasonable. It is not being faddish to want to know that animals haven’t suffered so you can eat or be clothed.
Just as farmers tend to operate within a distinctive culture, they sell their produce to people living and thinking within other cultures.
There is no right and wrong here. There are only people who, for myriad reasons, have adopted a set of practices and ideas as the framework for their lives. There are many ‘voices’ in our communities that shape and influence consumers attitudes and behaviours.
Communicating and connecting with those people across cultural boundaries is not hard, but it takes commitment, tenacity and openness.
It means acknowledging differences and the reasons for them, managing expectations, and actively responding where possible.
It also means demonstrating good faith with consumer concerns, showing that farmers are ‘walking the talk’ and meeting expectations. It’s called having a ‘social licence’ to farm.
Social licence is having the trust and confidence of consumers because they believe we do the right thing in their eyes.
We earn it through two-way communication.
Without it, we are mere price-takers. With social licence, how we farm and who we are become important to consumers – and that is surely worth the commitment.
-Robbie Sefton is NSW Rural Woman of the Year.