Do you spend time thinking about how eaters percieve what you grow? Or your buyers? Matt Kleinhenz believes this is a critical skill.

John: Obviously, you’ve thought about this a little bit. If you believe that growers are underappreciated, which I absolutely agree with, have you given any thought to how that might be remedied?

Matt: Not to share an unpopular idea, but I think they need to ask more of themselves. I also think that they could benefit from being a bit more assertive, professionally, about what they do—how and why, and what role they play. Some people will become activists, some people will become involved in grower organizations, some people will keep it one-on-one and simply have excellent conversations with their buyers on Saturday mornings or whenever they happen to encounter them—all of which are necessary.

But on the whole, I would encourage folks to use the opportunity to display their understanding of the farm’s role and of food’s role in that person’s life. Because too many of our eaters more or less just eat to avoid being hungry, right? Which is entirely fine. It’s a choice. Others, though, look to food for other types of return on investment; it’s an enjoyable experience. When a grower encounters a person or a market that might be wired that way, that might be thinking of food differently—having higher expectations of it, ideally—I’d like the grower to be able to step up and say, “Yeah, this is what we do and how and why, and we have data.”

Growers should have a real foundational argument for whatever assertion they would like to make. But a lot of growers, understandably, are on the farm doing their thing; being out and about and mingling with the masses is not necessarily their forte or interest. But there are other ways of having an impact and playing a role.

John: I completely agree with what you’ve described. The growers who have been able to really make an impact with consumers and with eaters are those who communicate “why.” They communicate why they make the choices they do. There certainly is an element of describing what they do and how they do what they do. But I think the most important piece, which resonates most deeply with eaters, is describing why you need to make these various decisions and these various choices that the consumer may or may not necessarily agree with. When you describe the situation of what’s happening and why you need to make these choices, their appreciation for the challenges and the difficulties and the opportunities in agriculture completely changes.

Matt: We want to be careful here. We want to elevate as much as possible the position of the grower within the whole spectrum of our society and our culture, and we want them to be successful. Thinking more about your question, the single most common source of struggle I’ve seen over the years is the grower looking at their product only as a farmer—being unable to see it in a more comprehensive way—most especially as the buyer sees it. Attitudes like, “Well, if I eat it, everyone else should be able to eat it too.”

When a grower is able to see the product from completely the other side of the table, as they—as much as possible—shed their grower attitude temporarily and see the product as if they’re buying it, for how it’s going to be used by the buyer, then they’re on a really exciting path. Then they can look differently at their own farm and possibly be able to exploit market opportunities that they didn’t see before.

That’s the single most consistent aspect of a vegetable farm now—especially a vegetable farm that might be selling directly to consumers, but even those who grow for processors.

John: That’s a fascinating observation.

Matt: They need to see it as the buyer does, and unequivocally so—without reservation, not kicking and screaming. They need to welcome the opportunity to see the product as the buyer does. You will return to being a farmer—no worries! But when you return to being a farmer, hopefully you carry that experience of seeing the product differently with you. All of a sudden, for some, it will be like, “Actually, I’m not producing kale; I’m producing food that someone’s going to serve at a family function, and it’s got to be just so.”

We do these exercises with students in the class where I hand them a tomato, or I hand them a potato, and I say, “Tell me what you see.” And everyone looks at me funny. You’d be amazed by the kinds of words that are used to describe ordinary products. But then we’re on a path towards understanding what that tomato is. If you go through that same exercise, for example, like I have, with students in the dietetics nutrition arena, versus the students in the agriculture arena, it’s amazing how they look at the same thing and use different words to describe it.

For a grower to understand how others see the product is indispensable.