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Looking for the map

By Holly Martin

Transparency and integrity: two words that matter more than ever in the agriculture industry.

To Mike Donahue the key to those words isn’t their definition. It’s much more. “To me, they’re not words. To me they are not to be defined. To me they are emotions.”

Donahue is chief brand and communications officer of LYFE Kitchen and a former executive for McDonald’s. He was one of the panel members of the Food Dialogues, sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, held in Chicago this week.

And that, my friends, is what farmers just don’t understand. That is why this whole consumer food debate has us stumped.

Farmers, by and large, are practical people. You operate a business based on facts. If it rains, your crops grow. If it doesn’t, they don’t.

My guess is that you understand the definitions of the words “transparency” and “integrity.” You thought you knew what they meant.

For a hog producer, that means sharing your manure management plans and not lying about it. It means inviting visitors to your farm and being honest about how you raise their food.

And all of that is true, but as Donahue points out—it’s about so much more. As a communications specialist who works directly with the consumers on behalf of restaurants, he’s saying that emotional tie is key to building trust.

“To me the ultimate relationship with the consumer is trust,” he said. “My favorite saying is: Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”

If I interpret that correctly, that means sometimes facts don’t really matter. Sometimes emotion is more important. I think we can all agree that is true.

And this is how the agriculture industry is finding itself with a big old target on its back—because we aren’t used to operating in that kind of world.

To confuse the matter even more, Alan Moskowitz says he doesn’t believe consumers want complete transparency. Moskowitz is a director at Communispace, a worldwide agency that helps companies connect with consumers. His specialty is food.

“I don’t think that the consumers really want to see inside the sausage factory. They don’t necessarily want to know all those details.”

What they want, he says, is enough transparency to meet their needs. They want to feel confident that their values—whatever those may be—are met. If they are environmentalists, they want to be sure the chemicals are handled responsibly. If animal welfare is important to them, they want to know the animals were treated humanely. But they don’t necessarily want to see the bolt gun.

Confused? Yes. Exactly. So am I.

So we are supposed to be transparent and honest, but if we tell too much, that’s a bad thing, so we have to establish a relationship with consumers, but not tell them too much? Huh?

Moskowitz admits it is tricky.

“Activists would argue that we need to see that image, that we aren’t close enough to our food. But I think the reality is that we’ve got to meet consumers where they are.”

If I might be so bold as to speak for all U.S. farmers and ranchers: I think the agriculture industry would be happy to meet them—if we only had the map.

Holly Martin can be reached by phone at 1-800-452-7171, ext. 1806, or by email at

Date: 6/16/2014


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