Last week, this small town Minnesota gal hit the streets of New York City to talk to consumers. My trip was part of the American Farm Bureau’s Partners for Agricultural Leadership (PALs) program. I, along with nine other farmers from across the country, ventured to the Big Apple to chat with the folks that call it home.
My copilot, Hilary Maricle from Nebraska, and I set off one afternoon to better understand how New Yorkers make their food buying decisions. We chatted with four people over the course of our journey. The first conversation was with two locals at a restaurant as they waited for their food. We asked this couple how they selected the food they buy. They responded similar to what most research says, “I buy based on cost and health.” Jeff Simmons of Elanco reported in, Technology’s Role in the 21st Century: making safe, affordable and abundant food a reality that, “95 percent of consumers choose foods based on taste, cost and nutrition (in that order).”
At a small corner grocery store a retired woman confirmed these findings. She is a vegetarian that theoretically supports organic, but financially cannot afford the products. As a result, she has continued to purchase items without the organic label.
Our final conversation took us to a park near the Empire State building. We spoke with a young woman who buys from a variety of sources, including a nearby farmer’s market. Even though she can buy from many places, she doesn’t buy much. She prefers to eat most of her meals at restaurants. She feels that prices are already high enough for food that it validates her “eating out.” So, that begged the question of how she selects her eateries. She usually frequents those that buy local or those that tell customers where they buy products from. In other words, she wants to be connected to her food and the farm in which it was raised.
In his report, Simmons said, “About four percent are lifestyle buyers who purchase food based largely on lifestyle factors: ethnicity and vegetarianism, or support for organic, local and Fair Trade food suppliers, etc. For this group, money isn’t a factor in their decision.”
The New Yorkers that we spoke with were incredibly interested in their food, in where their food comes from, and in us as farmers. One had spent time reading about farming, both conventional and organic. Another had traveled the country visiting friends, many of which lived on a farm. They were actively learning about what they eat and how it’s being grown.
Every person we chatted with spoke highly of farmers and the work we do. Our last question for each person: “What comes to mind when you think of a farmer?” The replies ranged from “Dirt under the nails,” to “Getting up early and lots of hard work.”
We turned the tables and asked if they had any questions for us. Hilary and I were asked each time if we were family farmers. We used this as an opportunity to share that nearly every farm across the United States – more than 98 percent – are family farms. We spoke about how both of us work hard each day to bring them top quality food, while raising the next generation on our farms.
All in all, our afternoon of walking the streets of Manhattan was nothing short of fascinating. I took a number of good lessons from the street of New York back to the gravel roads of Minnesota. As a sheep farmer selling lamb direct to consumers, I will now work harder to share our story and engage consumers in the work we do. I will continue to raise top quality animals as efficiently as I can. I will continually ask my consumers what they want.
New Yorkers care about their food. They care about what we’re doing on our farms. They care about us as farmers. It’s up to us to engage them in a conversation. It’s a conversation that they want. And it’s now a conversation that I want too.