Seeing our product as eaters see it

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.

2020-05-20T06:01:07-05:00May 22nd, 2020|Tags: , , |

Should consumers pay more for quality?

Many growers are eager to be compensated for the quality of the food they produce. To be compensated for quality means that quality needs to be quantified and measured. The idea of compensation also begs the question, should premium quality be marketed at a premium price, or should it be universally accessible? Should all produce be required to meet minimum nutritional quality thresholds?

I had an interesting conversation with Matt Kleinhenz on this topic in this podcast episode.

We should continue to focus on how a farm can become an instrument of public health, producing a more nutritious product, a more nutrient-dense product, a more flavorful product—a product that is more desirable to eat, simply because of its chemical, biological, or physical properties.

John: I’ve recently been a part of a number of conversations where growers are expressing the desire to improve nutritional value. Sometimes they use the language of “nutrient density” to talk about the improved nutrient density of food. My observations have been that for the most part, consumers and buyers at this stage aren’t really having that conversation—at least not on a large scale. An appropriate analog that they might be looking for would be flavor and aroma. But what have you observed? Do you think there is the potential in the future to have a major market demand for “nutrient-dense” foods?

Matt: Perhaps. First of all, nutritional value, or nutrient density, is a significant passion of mine, and I know it’s a significant passion for other investigators that I work with. Some of them are not in the so-called public light as an extension person, or as a grower/advisor, but they are working tirelessly and quite impressively towards a similar goal, but within their lane, regarding understanding what nutritional value is and how it can be enhanced. It is a big passion of mine.

To the second part of the question, I think we need to be very specific when we talk about the nutritional value and nutritional density. It’s a complex topic, and we don’t wave our hands and say that just because it’s complex that we can’t understand it, or that we shouldn’t approach it. No, quite the opposite. We should stay on task. We should continue to focus on how a farm can become an instrument of public health, producing a more nutritious product, a more nutrient-dense product, a more flavorful product—a product that is more desirable to eat, simply because of its chemical, biological, or physical properties. These are all parts of the process of enabling the food that we offer folks to play a larger role in maintaining or enhancing their quality of life, especially through their health status.

To the final point—will there be a market? Will there be a time when more people are paying more attention to this aspect? I think so, but we’re not there yet. I think that interest already is strong within a small community of eaters or a community of buyers. Where there are these so-called beachheads, there can be growth. Here in 2018, one-half of one percent of people might make decisions around nutritional value; some year down the road we might be able to say it’s 5 percent or 10 percent. In that increase there will be so many opportunities for enterprising growers to be a part of that process; it will become that much more noticeable


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