Trust is a tricky thing. One day you say you trust someone, a brand or a service and then in a blink of an eye, your view changes. A headline, a quote or a picture shoots an arrow through the heart of that belief. Your trust level has been challenged. And feelings of uncertainty about whether anything is true or transparent escalate. It happens all the time with our pop culture icons, our sports heroes and our elected leaders. And we are on the cusp of it happening with our agricultural sector. Before it is too late, we need to restore trust in our farmers.
The Erosion of Trust
According to Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, consumers base their trust on two distinct attributes: competence (delivering on promises) and ethical behavior (doing the right thing and working to improve society). This year, Edelman revealed that none of the four institutions evaluated — business, government, non-governmental organizations and media — were seen as both competent and ethical.1
Of the group, business ranked the highest in competence, holding a more than 50% advantage over government as an “institution that is good at what it does” (64% vs. 10%). Non-governmental organizations like the World Wildlife Federation led in ethical behavior over government (a 31-point gap) and business (a 25-point gap). Government and media were perceived as both incompetent and unethical. For most of us, these findings are not surprising and depending on our viewpoint, we may celebrate or stress over the results. Regardless of where our beliefs lie, we all have reasons to be concerned as these views influence everyday decisions from what we eat to who we believe on any subject.
The View from Hollywood
During the recent Academy Awards ceremony, a couple of lines from Joaquin Phoenix’s acceptance speech raised issues of ethical behavior and trust with animal agriculture. For some, his comments about the menace of artificial insemination and the depiction of calves being stolen from their mothers may have painted a picture of “uncaring farmers,” but for those of us who have been or are currently in the trenches, it was the same old scenario of “celebrity bashing without knowledge.”
I recognize animal agriculture is not in vogue for some. But isolated “sound bites” in public venues only fuel the flames when they fail to acknowledge the consequences of questioning the ethical behavior and competence of farmers and families that take care of animals every day of every month of every year. For more insights, check out this blog from the Animal Ag Alliance for insights from a dairy farmer.
It’s no secret that inherent trust of farmers (big or small) experienced by their respective communities has eroded over time. A national poll conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future2 shows most people don’t like industrial agriculture. But if just farmers are listed, the trust goes up as shown in other surveys.3 This growing lack of trust is not the fault of individual farmers but the result of those with the loudest voices and biggest platforms using their positions to either instill or erode trust in our agricultural sector.
Today, the agricultural community recognizes that “doing good” is not enough without talking about it, being transparent and following through on promises of sustainable practices. Similar to Edelman’s consumer brand research,4 the most trusted — and rewarded — brands need to make a difference in consumers’ lives. And to earn the highest levels of consumer trust, brands must back up their promises with action. Agricultural practices, especially animal agriculture, are no different.
Telling the Story
Now more than ever, stories from the farm are readily available showing that for every farm practice, animal or plant, there is a human connection and a family livelihood at stake. As Carrie Mess stated in her recent Dairy Carrie blog entry “Dear Joaquin”5: “…I respect your beliefs. But understand that there is no one more connected to the natural world than the farmers who are out here in the places you’ve never heard of, caring for the land and the animals. We’ve been sustainable and green since long before it was cool. You should get out of Hollywood for a while, the natural world isn’t there, it’s out here…”
Perhaps Hollywood needs to meet dairy farmers like Bob and Emerson (my father and grandfather) who placed the welfare of their cows first, upheld the integrity of the profession and remained true to their ethical principles. They were the trusted source. Today, farmers continue to play that role but will we as consumers trust the real source? Farmers understand the burden on them. As Booker T. Washington stated, “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.”